Mental Health: the condition of being sound mentally and emotionally that is characterized by the absence of mental illness and by adequate adjustment especially as reflected in feeling comfortable about oneself, positive feelings about others, and the ability to meet the demands of daily life.
Well fuck me sideways. I’m not the poster child for mental health. I have GAD with some concomitant depression, and panic disorder. The sources of this are a mixture of an unlucky break on the whole neurotransmitter thing, some ACES and strongly damaging experiences with bullying in adolescence and disastrous, damaging romantic relationships in my 20s and early 30s.
However, I would argue that modern life in America is not exactly friendly to mental health. We live in a society where costs continue to rise and wages remain largely stagnant. The costs of housing are skyrocketing in much of the country, and its rare that families have less than two wage earners. For women, we shoulder the burdens of building one’s career in the midst of systemic sexual discrimination and harassment, along with an unbalanced share of home tasks and child rearing responsibilities. All of this leaves many women feeling depleted and leaves little time for self care and true rest.
Add to this the fact that I am an introvert who has learned some valuable extroverted skills. I find small talk stressful, and large groups of people are generally exhausting. In my profession, I generally spend a ton of my day caring for the needs of others as well as my staff, and after domestic obligations I am way past my max on peopling.
I struggle with my mental illness. I am generally a capable, motivated person, but when I am flaring, it can cripple these traits and cause me to let down all sorts of people around me. I shame and blame myself severely, and my self-worth takes a hit. I get wrapped up in the protestant work ethic, midwestern stoic bullshit about having a “stiff upper lip” and sucking it up. Doing this for very long leads me well past my limits into panic attacks and breakdowns. When that happens, I feel brittle, fragile, and weak. This is when the demons of self-hatred REALLY hit their stride. There is no other time that I feel as worthless as during a panic attack or breakdown.
If you’ve never had a panic attack, thank your deity for that blessing. For me, I get irrationally upset about whatever the acute trigger was, and the anxiety triggers my limbic system, the same part of the body that controls the fight or flight response. So my body is aroused as if I had been attacked. Then it becomes this horrific emotional wind tunnel where my thoughts race, my thoughts repeat and are intrusive and irrational, I shake, and I cannot function at all. Sometimes I cry. It triggers suicidal thoughts. And the worst part of it? I CAN’T STOP OR CONTROL IT. I can’t just calm down, ignore it, or try to worry through. This shit stops me in my tracks and forces me to deal with it, just as if I was fleeing an attacker. But there’s no one there but my troubled mind. Do you know how fucked up of a feeling that is to be trying to run away from yourself? if I can catch it at the beginning, sometimes some breathing exercises, meditation and light medication will stop it. However, most of the time, I have to take a fair amount of medication to stop the panic, and then I have a day or two hangover from the medications.
My rescue medication is a benzodiazepine called klonopin. These drugs act on the same are of the brain that drugs and alcohol do, and after the panic fades, I feel like I have been on a bender, and I legit have a hangover the next day, just without the dehydration. And panic attacks in general leave me exhausted due to the sheer physicality of them. I read somewhere that I cannot find now that a panic attack is the body equivalent of running a marathon. I can believe that. After a strong attack, i’ve got absolutely nothing left in me.
I deal with all this shit while being a partner in a law firm, parent to a five-year old, and member of several non-profit boards and networking groups. Mental illness can derail my abilities and make it hard for me to meet my obligations and goals, and I HATE IT.
I get angry about the things that mental illness takes from me. It takes my self-confidence and strength, it saps my energy and my patience. It steals so many moments of my life that I will never get back. It fucks with my body my sex drive and my fertility. It messes with my relationships. It frightens people, and I lose them. It’s not fair, and I hate that I cannot ultimately control all of these things. If it got bad enough, it could take my life someday, and the mere thought of that terrifies me. I recently had a friend who died by suicide after a long battle with mental illness. It is real, and it happens.
I do think one of the few things that mental illness does that is positive is that it at times makes me more aware of the people around me and that they might be struggling. I’m a fairly strong empath as it is, but add that on top of it, and I am more willing to see other motivations and struggles that may be driving a person. This helps me have a more open mind about a lot of things and the world. I am mmre able to be forgiving of slights or failures in others if they admit or I can see that they are having a good time. It helps me be gentler with others because I remember what it feels like to be running from demons of my own making. More softness and understanding is definitely something the world needs. I have also found that in general online communities of persons with mental health struggles can be really supportive and uplifting places. Many persons with mental illness want to help their brethren in any way they can, and want to create community and safe spaces. Anything that promotes this is a treasure in the darkness of the world, and especially the internet, which is dark and full of terrors.
Open your eyes. See the struggles around you, but don’t be afraid of mental illness in yourself or in others. In most cases, the mentally ill person is more a danger to themselves than to you, and they need support and love. Isolation and ridicule are aggravating factors, and can lead the dangerous situations that people fear. Be respectful, but ask questions. Be curious. Step inside our world. There’s a lot that is beautiful under the struggle.
Photo by Natasha Spencer on Unsplash