So, I want to write a little bit about mental health today. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, but I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, it’s not easy.
For much of my life, I have dealt with a cyclical type of depression. What experience is similar to how people describe bipolar disorder, except it’s … different. I don’t get the manic highs, but I get intense anxiety that builds up until it collapses into depression. Many times, it seems that the diagnosis of mental illness depends on the illness being visible to outsiders, but because my troubles have been mostly invisible, most people figure I’m just a normal person who is moody sometimes. So, even though I’ve been coping with cyclical depression and anxiety for most of my life, I’ve never been diagnosed with anything but plain old depression. On one hand, that’s great because it means I’ve managed to dodge a label that’s easily misused and even hurtful. On the other hand, it means that in my darkest times, the responses I got from other people were usually:
Just get it together.
You’re just too emotional.
Don’t take it so seriously.
You think too much.
“You think too much,” is probably the most common thing I have been told in the midst of an emotional breakdown. I’m not sure if I can explain exactly how unhelpful that is, but for the record, it is unhelpful and also massively insulting. To a person who grew up in an intellectual family and prides herself on being able to grasp big concepts, “You think too much,” is like saying, “Just stop being yourself.”
No, I don’t think too much, but I do have really strong feelings sometimes. And sometimes my thoughts and feelings are hard to control. And there have been times when I’ve lost control completely.
It’s scary to lose control of your thoughts. One minute you’re mad at your roommate for leaving a mess in the kitchen,* and the next minute, someone’s telling you “You think too much,” and you start second guessing everything. Do I really have a right to be mad at my roommate? If not, why am I so upset? What’s wrong with me? I must be crazy. I always freak out about everything. I’m so fucked up. Why can’t I just get along with people? No wonder no one likes me. What the fuck am I even doing here? I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.
This thought pattern can get really dark really quickly, and for me, it usually lead to one place: If this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life, maybe I should just end it now.
That’s a pretty terrifying moment. The first time it happened, I thought, “Mary, you really are thinking too much now. Stop it. Have a drink. Take a nap. You’ll feel better later.” After the second time, I got back on anti-depressants, which I had taken periodically throughout high school and college. But even on medication, I would still have really intense panic attacks sometimes. It was predictable, too. Everything would seem fine until a little anxiety started creeping in. Over a few weeks, things would get gradually worse, and then once every month or two, I would have a meltdown. A couple days after a major meltdown, I would feel bright and shiny as though the sun had come out after a big storm. I took to hiding in my room so my roommates wouldn’t know how insane I was. I was a mess, and I was scared, and I was afraid to ask for help.
For me, help came via my husband, who saw me going through these cycles over and over again. He was confused and hurt and just wanted me to be happy and didn’t know how to help. We took long walks during which I talked to him about everything on my mind. He listened and listened and listened. He loved me even though I felt broken. There were many times when I felt guilty because I couldn’t be as good a partner to him as he was being for me, but he insisted on staying and helping me through it.
It took a long time for me to go to therapy because I thought that people who go to therapy were fucked up. Going to therapy meant admitting that you don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I was afraid it would mean I was stupid or somehow incapable of taking care of myself, and remember, most of the time, I was just normal. Nothing really bad ever happened to me as a kid. I didn’t have any good reason for being so messed up. No one but me could see my scary thoughts, so I assumed I just needed to toughen up and stop letting my emotions get the better of me. Only when I went to the doctor and couldn’t control my tears or my racing heart did someone say, “I really think it would help you to talk to someone, a counsellor maybe…” I didn’t like the word therapist, and my earlier experience with a psychologist was less than stellar, but my doctor was right. I needed to talk to someone. Even though my husband was willing to support me, I didn’t want to burden him with my emotions all the time, and I obviously hadn’t resolved my issues on my own.
The funny thing about therapy is that it worked, even though a lot of people who should know better told me it wouldn’t. I told someone my doctor suggested I take vitamins and focus on getting daily exercise, and they told me she was a crackpot. They would have preferred to see me on lithium, perhaps. When I ran out of my antidepressants, I decided not to refill the prescription since it wasn’t preventing those panic attacks anyway. I learned other coping skills instead. I found that meditation and yoga helped me feel more stable. I learned to let go of those obsessive thoughts that I knew would start the downward spiral. I learned to ask for help. I never went back to taking medication because it turns out that my mental health is manageable through lifestyle adjustments rather than prescriptions, which came as a relief. Not everyone is so lucky.
There must be as many types of mental illness as there are mutations of the common cold virus. Everyone’s experience will be different. But what I know for sure is that mental illness causes suffering, and it gets worse if we believe that “you just think too much,” or “you’re too emotional.” It is terrifying to sit alone in your room and feel that there is something so intrinsically wrong with you, down to the genetic level, that you cannot live a normal happy life. To think, “Well, I guess mother nature fucked up this batch. Maybe I’ll just take myself out of the game.” It’s just an awful experience.
So, what I’m saying is I hope you will ask for help if you’re suffering. And I hope you will reach out to those who suffer. I hope you will not call other people “crazy” when they’re going through it. I hope you will have someone to listen when you need it and that you will listen in return when you can.
*When you say you’re mad about the mess in the kitchen, let’s be honest. You’re never just mad about the mess. This anger very quickly triggers outrageous thoughts such as, “The mess in the kitchen is just proof that my spouse/roommates/children disrespect me. They leave the mess because they expect me to clean it up.” This line of thinking assumes the other person is being malicious when in fact, it’s just paranoia from your own lack of self worth. That kind of thinking is the result of an anxious and unhappy mind.