Mike Shaver recently posted about his issues with mental illness. Partly because it’s currently affecting his work, but also “because I think that people don’t talk about mental illness enough.” I think he’s right. I recently helped a friend of mine seek treatment and the factor that actually got him to go to a doctor was talking to mconnor about his own experiences seeking treatment for the same illness. After months of trying to get him to go, he made the appointment the very next day. While I haven’t ever received a diagnosis, or been given treatment specifically for mental illness I have had my own experiences with it. In support of Shaver, my friend and everyone else out there struggling, this is me, talking about it.
I was separated from my mother at the age of 2. Her parents raised me, but home was never great. I didn’t actually find out until adulthood that she did raise me for the first 2 years of my life. A lot of my anger and loneliness as a child makes a lot more sense knowing that. I never really fit in anywhere. Not at home, not at school. At around age 9 or 10 it started really catching up with me. I didn’t want to go to school, which didn’t make sense because I’ve always loved school itself. I wasn’t brushing my hair. I used to lock myself in the bathroom so that my grandparents couldn’t make me go to school, but my grandfather would come and drag me out. Looking back I assume they’d been threatened with court by the school board if they didn’t make me go. I’m sure there were other symptoms, but I’m happy not to try too hard to remember those days.
One day while driving me to school my grandmother told me I had an appointment, but wouldn’t tell me what kind. At some point during the day I was called to the office and the principal and my guidance counselor were there to explain that I was being taken to a shrink. I was mad, betrayed, I didn’t want to go. The first few sessions I just sat there, I didn’t want to talk. After a little while though, I slowly started talking and OMG it felt great. See my grandparents are great people, they’ll do anything for a friend, very active in their church, highly regarded in many ways. But they were shit parents. My grandfather had a temper and if you tried to tell my grandmother she was doing something wrong she would just laugh at you. I finally had someone who would listen to me, who would advocate for me. I didn’t have to talk to them, she would bring things up in her sessions with them if I asked her to. She encouraged me to bring things up in a group meeting, but in the mean time, she was my safety. Then we moved. Ironically, I wanted to find a new therapist, but my grandparents, under the weight of all the things she was telling them they did wrong, weren’t so interested.
As a teenager
Oh my teens. My attitude towards relationships was seriously skewed because of my home life. Boyfriends were potential husbands which were escape routes. I always talked about marriage (even at 13), plots were hatched to run away somewhere or marry as soon as possible. Of course this also meant I lost a lot more in a break up and I never handled them well. I didn’t eat, my grades suffered, my friendships suffered because all I could focus on was analyzing what went wrong and hoping somehow I could get him back. I actually failed a math class because of a boy and had to take summer school to graduate the year I’d planned.
Oddly enough, I was an optimist. Looking back I can’t actually make the two selves compute, but while I dwelled so much on how bad things were, I always seemed to have an eye on how good things could be, and tried to make the best of things. I remember one day in high school two classmates commented that I wasn’t smiling that day, and that it was ruining their day because whatever else happened, they’d come to count on my mood in that class cheering them up. I’ve actually noticed the same thing in my sister. Just going off her mood you wouldn’t guess that she’s lonely or frustrated. It only comes out when you get her talking about certain subjects.
I think if you asked me at the time if I was happy I would have said “yes, except for…” this giant thing that took up a lot of my time and had me contemplating suicide. I don’t think I was ever really suicidal, just like I never really harmed myself though I would hurt myself sometimes to distract from the emotional pain. It’s a small distinction, but I’ve known women who have really really cut themselves and can’t wear short sleeves anymore. Nothing I ever did caused any lasting physical effects.
As an adult
I have some of the typical markers you’d expect from someone with my history – teen mother, married and divorced young, varied and exciting sexual history. I don’t want to get too much into my life at this point because it’s not just my story. I definitely had anxiety issues during my marriage. While I never believed aliens would attack earth or actually abducted people, thinking about it happening caused a lot of anxiety and fear. This started in childhood and continued into my 20s.
There was also a period in my 20s where I slept with a nightlight because of anxiety at night – I was fine during the day. I figured out that if I tried to go to bed before I was tired I would lie awake thinking about horrible things happening to my family that I wouldn’t be able to stop, including, but not limited to, alien abduction, kidnapping, homicide, war, it goes on. Laughing helped. I ended up with a nightly regimen of watching 2 hours of sitcoms followed by Conan O’Brien before bed. Then I could sleep. I also learned not to go to bed until I was ready to sleep, which sometimes meant some really
late nights early mornings. I’m not actually sure when or why this anxiety went away, but thank god it did.
Every now and then I would feel anxiety for no reason. Nothing crushing, but it wouldn’t go away either. At the grocery store, in the middle of a TV show. It felt like when people talk about knowing something bad has happened to someone they love, right before they get the phone call, but calls never came and my immediate family was always fine. Watching TV I saw a commercial for a new birth control pill – actually it was an FDA required commercial clearing up a previous commercial for said pill. Two things struck me, first it’s a different type of hormone that doesn’t bind to the free testosterone in a women’s system. The second thing that caught my attention was the clarification that Yaz was not approved to treat PMS but rather PMDD.
I’d never heard of PMDD before, so I looked it up. It sounded a lot more like me than any other mental illness profile I’d read (we’ve all been there, almost every profile sounds a little like us). I saw my doctor and got a prescription. What a difference! The random anxiety stopped and many situations that used to make me nervous no longer did. My moods, and my hormones it seems, are on a much more even keel. While there are definitely positive changes in my life I could attribute this to, there has been more than one occasion that I’ve started getting anxious and then realized I’d forgotten my pill that day.
I’m doing much better. Looking back I’m not sure I’d say I had a diagnosable mental illness, maybe PMDD. I think a lot of my problems were situational, and now that I’m in control of my own life I’m so happy I can’t even begin to express it. It’s possible though that I do have something and through trial by fire learned to cope.
That’s what’s so tricky about diagnosing and treating mental illness. Are we depressed because we never learned to cope with certain situations, or are we unable to cope because we’re depressed? The first question many people ask me about my friend that’s getting help is “what is he depressed about?” In my situation, I was certainly depressed about things and learning to make better choices was a big part of my solution. In his case, he was just generally depressed. He has friends, a great job of his choosing. He’s not depressed about anything, he’s depressed. In his case drug treatment has come first and has allowed other positive changes in his life that he wouldn’t believe were possible.
What I hope you get out of this
You don’t have to have a debilitating mental illness to have a condition that would benefit from therapy or treatment.
You can’t tell by looking or casual interaction who’s suffering.
Talking about it helps.
Talking about it helps you.
Talking about it helps others.
Talking about it helps.
You’re not alone.