There are too many people, armed with Google-discovered symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADD, etc., who run to their doctors, rattle off the list of symptoms and ask for a prescription. What they don’t tell their doctor is they just want to study longer or take the edge off or disconnect for a bit or see if they can focus more on the job they hate. They don’t suffer from mental illness. They have not been diagnosed with any disorder. They’re just medicating in much the same way housewives back in the 60s medicated with Valium. It may not be recreational, but it sure as hell isn’t necessary.
And that leaves those of us on medication lumped in with the plethora of people who are popping pills just to deal with the ups and downs of every day lives “normal” humans face in the course of a day. That’s why I hear “just deal with it” or “you don’t need meds, you just need a drink” or “you’re just using it as a crutch.”
"Adderall is the pill of choice today."
Pill of choice.
I’ve got news for you, lady. This is not a choice. Depression and anxiety is not something I have chosen to have. I did not choose to grow up feeling like I was living in a dark shadow. I did not choose to have my first full blown panic attack at 14 in the middle of a Grateful Dead concert. I do not in any way choose to not be able to fully enjoy my life, I do not choose to constantly feel like my world is closing in on me, I do not choose to some days not want to leave my house out of fear of everything that exists outside of it, I do not choose to drive to the store with my hand white knuckling the steering wheel because in a five mile drive I’ve managed to conjure up every bad thing that can happen between here and there. I do not choose to not be able to complete basic tasks like mailing out tax returns and I do not choose to make the people in my life wonder what the hell they have done wrong because I’m crying or sad or worried for no fucking reason. And I certainly do not have a drug of choice. Drug of choice implies a want. I do not want this. I never wanted to take Paxil or Wellbutrin or Abilify or Xanax. I never chose this; it chose me. These drugs are not happy fun time. These drugs are not candy on display in a store where you can figure out which one is going to be like opening a package of instant happiness. I do not choose drugs. I do not have a drug of choice. I have a drug of necessity. There’s a huge difference between some agitated college student gulping down someone else’s Adderall so they can stay up all night cramming for a final and someone who has to wake up every day and take a pill so they can fit in with the world’s broad and skewed definition of normal and so they can get through the day without wondering if this will be they day they’ll end up in committing themselves to a mental institution.
People take medication because they don’t feel like themselves. They’re having an off day and think they need to medicate.
You want to know what myself feels like? It feels like emptiness. It feels like a dark, vast hole. It feels like confusion. It feels like anger and sadness, like maniacal happiness holding hands with bleak depression. It feels like envy and bitterness because you don’t feel like everyone else does. It feels like joy slipping through your fingers. It feels like endless nights bloated with monsters and phantoms that slap you around.
I don’t know what the hell normal is, so I don’t know if I feel it. What’s normal? Who is to say? When I first started on medication I said “Holy crap, is this what it feels like to be normal?” and then I realized I had no basis for measuring normalcy. To me for over 30 years, normal had felt something like a closet crammed with explosives labeled with emotions, never knowing which ones would go off and when, or how long the fireworks would last. Normal was people constantly asking what’s wrong with me and me not having an answer. I don’t know if I feel more like myself with the drugs because I have no fucking idea what myself feels like. Being me has never been a consistent thing. So how would I know?
I don’t feel more like myself with drugs. I feel more like I can function. I feel more like I can contribute to society. I feel more like I can think with clarity, react with proper emotion and not keep the number of South Oaks hospital in my wallet. That’s kind of the opposite of what I’ve known myself to be. So no, I dont feel more like myself. I feel like someone else and even though I’m ok with this person I am with the drugs, I still have no idea if this person is normal because no one can say what normal is and I resent anyone who tries to make me feel like I need to attain some sort of standard of perceived normalcy.
People who speak like that make me think they have no idea what mental illness looks like. Guess what? It’s not always the disheveled woman on the corner yelling at an invisible friend. It’s not alway the guy who walks into a movie theater with a gun. It’s me. It’s people you know. It’s people you work with, people you hang out with. Some of us are on drugs. And we don’t know what the hell you want from us. You tell us our mental illnesses are imagined. You tell us we just need to grin and bear it. You tell us our drugs are dangerous. You tell us our drugs are a choice and that’s akin to saying our mental illnesses are a choice. And a great disservice is done to every single one of us every time an article is published where people dismiss the various forms of depression and anxiety as if they were just common colds that will go away with a few swigs of NyQuil and taking better care of ourselves. It’s worse when lumped in those articles are anecdotes about “millennials” whose “new normal” is to pop pills meant for serious mental issues the way we used to take NoDoz to stay awake and alert. This is not the new normal, people. It’s been the norm for a lot of people for a long time and we’re not making light of it. But for some, we’re just a punchline to a joke, or our issues get a standard response of “Oh, so that’s your drug of choice?”
It’s not a choice. And if you think it is, you are hopelessly clueless. Or perhaps, even better, talk to some people who live with not only the albatross of mental illness, but the stigma that still comes with it.
My anxiety is at an all time high and my head is filled with negative thoughts. I try to chase them away but they keep coming back, attaching themselves to me, clinging on like a static filled sock you thought you lost but is just stuck to the back of your pants. I keep shaking them off, they keep their grip on me. I make it a point to count off the good things in my life, the things I have to look forward to, the things I’m fortunate to have, the people I’m lucky to know and that warm fuzzy feeling lasts for a few minutes before the negativity creeps in again. Just a lot of what-ifs. I live in the land of What If. It’s not a good way to live because most of those what-ifs are ridiculous monsters, made up from irrational fears and vague nightmares, just boogeymen that don’t exist outside the confines of my mind. Yet I let them get to me. They’re what keeps me from enjoying life. They’re what keeps me from being able to write. To function normally, even.
I write about them in the hopes that putting them out in the daylight, maybe muttering an incantation of “you’re not real” will dispense the static they use to cling to me and make them go away. It’s an odd boogeyman that comes out in the daytime, isn’t it? They’re usually reserved for 3am, they normally thrive on darkness and stillness. You’d think the daylight would dispel them, burn them away but no, they’re stronger than that.
So I recite my morning incantations, telling myself everything is good, the day is going to be fine, nothing traumatic is going to happen, life is pretty ok. I try to chase the monsters away with good thoughts, try to slay them with shards of happiness, doses of Xanax. Some days it works. Some days they’re stronger than whatever weapons I have.
I need to sharpen my weapons. I can’t let the boogeymen win.
I didn’t sleep last night.
And when I say I didn’t sleep I don’t mean I slept fitfully I mean I did not sleep.
I was seized by panic attacks most of the night, the kind that squeeze your heart and make you feel like someone has cut off your air supply. The kind where your throat dries up and you can’t swallow and you’re sure you’re about to die.
All it takes is a few of those in a short time span to convince you that you are dying and that’s all it takes to keep you up, alert and vigilant on your own death watch all night.
Am I still breathing.
Am I still breathing.
Is my heart still beating.
I’m breathing too hard.
My heart is beating too fast.
Am I still breathing.
And then the invisible fist that reaches into you and grabs your heart in its grubby little hands and doesn’t let go so you don’t know if you’re having a heart attack or a panic attack or maybe it’s just indigestion.
I got up - it’s only 11:30 at this point - and took half a Xanax. I felt a little calmer when I got back to bed but the damage was already done.
Am I still breathing.
Why am I panicking.
Oh yea that’s why I’m panicking.
More panic about panicking.
More worrying about worrying.
Am I still breathing.
Yes, you’re still breathing. Of course you are. But your breaths are labored and intense and it’s making you hyperventilate which is going to mimic a panic attack and here we go again just lie still stare at the ceiling breathe in the good breathe out the bad in through the nose out through the mouth everything will be ok.
Let’s think about all the things on your “to do” list that have not been done yet. Let’s think about things you’ve been putting off. Let’s think about all the ways you’ve fucked up. Let’s think about oh god it’s almost three and I haven’t slept yet how am I going to function tomorrow what if I don’t sleep at all what if
am I still breathing?
I think I am. I think I am. I think I am.
What if I die in my sleep?
I am breathing.
I am alive.
Time to get up.
I walked down the first aisle and freaked out because the organic cereal and snacks were there instead of the drinks. Then I went down the coffee/cookie aisle and the drinks were there instead.
I stood in the middle of the aisle, just me and my cart and my look of abject terror. I had no idea what to do. I go to this particular store and this store only because the familiarity of it allows me to shop without being waylaid by crowd anxiety. I have a floor plan of the place stored in my head and my shopping trips are all mapped out in the exact same way with no deviation whatsoever. I start at a certain aisle and work my way up and down in a very particular fashion, always ending my trip in front of the bread display. I know (knew) where everything is and I’ve been going to this store and shopping this way for so long I’m convinced I could do it with my eyes closed.
But there’s change. And that change freaked me out. I had a near panic attack next to the Snapple display and actually dug through my purse for a Xanax (yay for emergency supplies always at hand), took half and waited for my breath to come in regular intervals.
By the time I figured out what was where and how the aisles were now set up I had calmed down but when I saw workers in other aisles ripping shelves out and taking down product to change even more stuff I started sweating. It wasn’t just one or two aisles they were changing. It’s everything.
Nothing is going to be the same again. It’s going to take me months to figure out my new shopping pattern. It’s going to take that long to get used to the new set up and become familiar enough with it so it feels comfortable.
Food shopping should not be this stressful.
Stop changing things, world. You’re messing me up.
[I wrote this one year ago; repeated by request]
There’s a place. It’s a closet of sorts, the kind of closet that appears in fantastical children’s books, a closet that opens up to a world that can’t possibly exist in those confines. It seems to reach out forever, to have no end. It is made of darkness, mystery, fear and nothingness. You don’t know what you’re going to see when you open the closet doors. And it’s not always a choice to open them. Sometimes they open on their own volition.
The closet looks neat and organized on first glance. Things are arranged concisely, in some kind of order. It’s when you push past that order, when you move the carefully created stacks of things and look behind the aligned rows when you realize there is more than meets the eye. You think there will be a backing, a wall of sorts. The thought of the wall being there is what makes you feel safe. It’s what keeps everything from spilling out of the closet. The appearance of order and the illusion of finiteness is what keeps you grounded.
I had two panic attacks at work today. I rarely experience panic attacks anymore. Where once they came at the rate of dozens per day, I get them once a month now. If that.
So today was kind of disconcerting.
Even more disconcerting was the way I handled it.
I handled it with shame.
I didn’t want to tell anyone at work what was going on. I didn’t want to say “I’m having a panic attack.” I did not want to have to explain my anxiety disorder, my depression, my bipolar or anything. I did not want get into that discussion with anyone because I did not want to see or hear their reaction.
I didn’t want to hear “It’s all in your head.” I didn’t want to see the disapproving looks. I didn’t want anyone to look down on me because I have mental issues. I didn’t want their view of me to change because they think I’m weak or flawed.
The stigma of mental illness is real. My fears are not imagined. But now I wonder how much of the stigma is self fulfilling. How much of it is mental illness sufferers being caught in a vicious cycle of wanting to open a dialogue about our plight but then worrying about being looked down upon when we finally open up about it?
I made up some excuse and went home at 4:30. I’m mad at myself for letting the panic get the best of me and I’m mad at myself for being angry over something I really couldn’t control. I’m mad at myself for being so weak and mad at myself for thinking I’m weak. I’m everything I perceive the enemies of mental illness to be; I look down on myself, I berate myself, I don’t allow myself breakdowns or panic or low cycles without thinking I should be better than that, I should have learned to rise above all of this by now.
I do these things and feel this way because society has made me believe I am weak and flawed. But I perpetuate it by believing it.
When does the cycle end?
As much as I know what my meds do for me, there are some days I don’t want to take them. I don’t want to hear that alarm go off, I don’t want to make the practiced walk over to the cabinet, I don’t want to take out the two bottles, shake a pill out of one, a half pill out of the other. I don’t want to wash them down and wait. Wait to feel normal.
I want to burn the prescriptions and empty the bottles down the drain because I don’t want it to have to be like this. What’s it like to not have to take some kind of medication to keep yourself from crying, sleeping, overreacting, becoming manic, being anxious, acting paranoid, feeling like the world is going to close in on you? What’s it like to not have to swallow pills in order to regulate your moods? What is it like?
I find the whole process exhausting. I hate thinking about it because when I think about it, I get overwhelmed at the concept of having to take these pills every single day for the rest of my life to just feel like a well functioning human being.
I’m grateful for what modern medication offers me. I’m grateful that my brain chemistry can be altered to the extent that I feel like a “normal” human being, that I can function and think clearly and be productive and happy. I am thankful there is this much. Every day I am thankful I have found a way to participate fully in the human race.
But some days it frustrates and saddens me that I can’t do it on my own. I feel flawed. I am flawed. I am reminded of that at 7:00 every morning.
Some days I eagerly swallow those pills, grateful for their company on my journey.
But some days I resent them.
The things that give me relief also give me pause.
I was going through my old blog yesterday, looking for something I once wrote about the Christmas season. I got hung up in my late 2001/early 2002 archives. I read and read and as I read I could trace the history of how my depression, anxiety and myriad mental health issues went from mild to acute. Or maybe just more pronounced.
I lived in a land of make believe. I was delusional. A compulsive liar to myself and to everyone around me. I lied about how my life was going. I lied about being happy and content with the path I chose. I lied about my relationship. I lied about stupid things like what I got for Christmas because I had to make it look like he was buying gifts for me when I was buying them for myself and presenting them as if he did. I had to keep up the illusion that I made the right choice, that I wasn’t crazy and making decisions only a crazy person would make.
It was exhausting. And it took a toll on me. It’s so weird looking back on everything I wrote and watching myself fall apart. I recognized then I was falling apart but I was struggling so hard to maintain the facade of normalcy and happiness that I started to believe all my own lies because it was the only way my brain could deal with the duality.
It’s like reading the blog of a stranger. I don’t know who that person was. I barely remember living that life. I block out more and more of it as time goes on and then I end up going back and reading all of those posts and I remember, but I don’t remember. It’s like living through someone else’s memories.
I wish I got the right kind of help sooner. I wish I didn’t go to a doctor who just threw pills at me without really ever hearing me out. I wish I didn’t feel too embarrassed to tell people close to me that I needed help. I wish I would have somewhere to turn to without feeling like I was being judged.
I swallowed the pills that doctor gave me and they made things worse. I listened to people tell me “there’s something wrong with you” and “you need help” with disdain in their voices. I felt weak. I felt useless. I felt helpless.
I stopped taking the pills. I spent three weeks in hell going through withdrawals. I stopped seeing that doctor. I started drinking heavily. I continued to live a life of delusion and sadness, I continued to pretend everything was ok, I continued to be mentally exhausted and burned out and I continued to feel like maybe the world - and my kids - would be better off without me.
Just when everything was coming to a head, when the depression got worse, when the agoraphobia hit, when I almost lost my job, when I was drunk at work, when violence entered an already emotionally abusive relationship, I was thrown a lifeline.
Not everyone gets that lifeline. I was fortunate. I am fortunate. It still took years from the point where I was thrown that lifeline to finally feeling whole and healthy, but I got there.
There are people who don’t get there. There are people who won’t have someone come into their lives who offers them a hand, a heart, a second chance. There are people who will remain alone in their struggles. It is a difficult, awful thing to feel broken. It’s even harder to feel broken when you are alone, when you have nowhere or no one to turn to.
I don’t know what would have happened to me had I remained in that world I no longer know.
Would I have snapped?
Would I have killed myself?
Would I have done something drastic and terrible?
The crescendo of my madness was filled with anger, bitterness and rage.
If help had not come when it did, my world right now would not be as it is. And how many other lives would I have changed had I continued on that path?
I am fortunate. I am so very fortunate.
Not everyone is.
It needs to be easier to get help. To ask for help. To find help.
It needs to get better or there are people who will never get better.
Reading all those old posts make me ever so grateful for the life I have now. I’m grateful to the people in my life who listen and reach out and understand. I’m grateful for an empathetic doctor and good medication. I’m grateful that the life of mine I read about, the life that seems to belong to someone else, is gone, over, never to be relived.
Yet it’s still there, in black and white, in pixels, forever a reminder.
Do I need that reminder?
Sometimes. Sometimes I need to not take what I have now for granted.
And sometimes it pushes me to ask why. Why is it so hard? Why don’t we want to talk about mental illness? How is it that the term “mental illness” makes people look at you in fear instead of with empathy?
We are among you. We are here. We need your hands and your hearts.
[written at 4am, pardon the rambling nature]