I think what Call Me Mental is doing is incredibly important. People need to know mental illness is a disease. For years, I’ve suffered from problems with anxiety and depression, which is very common. It shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of, but something we have to deal with.
First of all, I have to say I’ve had a very lucky life. For many people, a number of external factors such as a troubled or abusive childhood or relationship, substance abuse or a traumatic event can bring about mental illness. However, I am very blessed and have never experienced any of these. While I have had minor drinking and money troubles (both catalysts for depression) my problems with mental health are primarily genetic/chemical.
In my late college years I began having panic attacks – which felt like cardiac arrests (but of course were not). These were often followed by brief bouts of depression, even a few incidents of suicidal thoughts. I soon realized these episodes went hand in hand with my excessive drinking. I discovered the more I avoided alcohol and certain stressful situations, the better I felt, but that was often easier said than done.
In the years since college, anxiety/depression came and went. I usually battled the symptoms by attempting to take care of myself, exercising, not drinking, etc. Also, with the help of a few therapists and anti-depressant/mood stabilizing drugs I was able to feel positive and normal for several months, even years at a time.
A few years ago, I moved to a new city and was doing well until late fall 2012/winter 2013. An extended period of frustration at work, intense boredom and loneliness led to a lot of heavy drinking and by Christmas was having serious trouble.
I again dropped alcohol but by that time, I could feel the changes my mind had gone through. The heavy depression was back for the first time in years. An impenetrable, all-encompassing nothingness consumed me. There was a numbness enveloping my skull making my thoughts increasingly negative. I was bored and frequently irritable. Concentrating was nearly impossible and I missed several days of work and would often leave for hours at a time when I was at the office.
The most terrifying aspect was having thoughts that weren’t my own. In the depths of my depression, flashes of violent imagery of doing things to myself or others would pop into my head. these were terrifying thoughts and scared me even more. I didn’t want to do these things – I didn’t want to kill myself. So, why was I having these thoughts?
Additionally, I lived alone at the time, which was incredibly scary. I was able to get an antidepressant prescription. But, they took two weeks to take effect so I had a lot of time to myself, alone in my apartment with my terrifying thoughts. I was afraid my thoughts would get the best of me and my worst fears would come true.
What made matters worse was that I was in a city where I did not have access to my usual doctors. My insurance provider (United Healthcare – I don’t care, I’ll name names) was horrible at helping me find access to mental health care doctors. I made dozens of calls to therapists and psychiatrists in the company’s plan but almost none of them were taking new patients. The ones that were taking new patients had openings in about 5-8 weeks. Great, I need help now. That won’t help me. Others, not in network cost about $450/hour, money I simply did not have.
Luckily, one night my friend K asked what was up with me. Sick of trying to hide it from people, I confided in her that I was having trouble with depression. Her reaction was the best one a friend could ask for. She was polite and understanding but didn’t pry (I didn’t really understand why I felt like that anyway) and even told me similar problems she had gone through.
She told me to contact her friend A, whose mother was a therapist who could help me. A was also incredibly understanding and helpful and talked to her mother for me. The next week I had a session with her mother and went regularly afterwards, steadily improving. Also, after 6 months of searching, I found a psychiatrist who could monitor my antidepressant use. (Thanks United! Only 6 months to get crucial medical attention!)
Had it not been for K, I would’ve spent a lot more time wandering alone in the wilderness and who knows what would have happened.
I don’t know where I get it from because my parents have never had such problems, (although my uncle was manic-depressive and had a nervous breakdown in the 70s). But there is definitely something in my family. My sister has symptoms similar to mine, only magnified, and I try to help her through it as best I can. I also have cousins on both sides who have had similar experiences.
I know that it is something I will have to live with, probably for the rest of my life. But, I keep battling and hope that one day I will defeat it for good.
In the mean time, I hope the stigma erodes away and we take a more nuanced and serious look at dealing with mental illness in the United States. No one should have to deal with it alone. I know there are people who have had a much tougher time than me.