When you have a mental illness, it’s customary to look back on your life and try to decipher when it all started. I’ll start with this: I’ve always felt different. That might sound cliché, but it’s true. As a teenager, I was quiet. I spent a lot of time locked in my room reading books. I thought too much, my mother said. I worried too much. I had trouble sleeping and would often look at my alarm clock with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I’d count down the hours until morning and stress about not having the full nine hours recommended. I was just a young thing, but worry swam through my veins. I could never shake the sinking feeling I didn’t belong. That sinking feeling would come back time and time again throughout my life.
I can’t remember the first time I was diagnosed with depression. It feels like so long ago I first went to a doctor with my mom and said I felt “sad.” I’d go to therapy with her sitting next to me in the room, probably wondering what went wrong, how a young girl who seemed to have every opportunity could feel so alone and misunderstood. The truth is, I have no idea. Depression doesn’t seem to have any good explanation. It could be rooted in my genes, in my upbringing, or some connection that hasn’t yet been discovered. I will probably never know. How it happened isn’t the point. The point is, it’s here now and I’ve had to do something about it.
I didn’t know at such a young age this diagnosis would stay with me forever. I was too young when diagnosed to realize the stigma around mental illness was so pervasive and thick, I’d often feel stuck in a corner, isolated from all the “normal” people who don’t have to constantly convince their brains everything’s alright. At times, I forget how that feels. From a young age, I was discouraged from telling others I was taking anti-depressants or seeing a therapist. It was supposed to be my secret. I could never belong because an important part of my life, my mental illness, had to be covered up. Luckily, above all else, I had parents who got me help, so I could feel better. I could get back to life.
In college, a new struggle was added to the mix, right when I started feeling “normal.” I experienced my first and worst panic attack. I had no idea what was happening to my body. I thought my heart was beating so hard it was bound to give out. I couldn’t breathe for so long I passed out and fell head first into a wall. Mental illness literally smacked me in the face, much harder this time. After the first attack, they didn’t stop. I soon realized it wasn’t an isolated incident, it was the start of my recurring nightmare.
Panic attacks nearly sidelined me from finishing my degree. They began affecting all aspects of my life in college. Although, magically, I always finished my homework, I’d spend entire nights tossing and turning, shaking, and feeling sick to my stomach. I went through a straight week of panic attacks every single night. I said I wanted to give up, although I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to stop feeling that way. As my mother would say, I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
After panic attacks, and sometimes independent of them, the depression comes without warning. A black cloud has its arms tight around me and I can’t shake its’ grip. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to do anything. I change into a completely different person, someone I don’t even recognize. Instead of having a thirst for life, I’m numb to everything. I can’t eat or sleep. I can’t do anything. It’s incredibly hard to describe to my friends or family, because it feels like some subliminal state of mind and not a concrete experience. I’m not a sad person. My depression doesn’t make me sad or depressing to be around. It’s just this thing that happens to me sometimes that I don’t really understand. It’s a part of me I’ve learned to cope with.
Panic and depression are always lurking. Over the years they’ve become familiar, but still not like a friend you’d invite to a dinner party. I don’t always know what will set off a panic attack. I have vague ideas—stress without enough “me” time, change, talking about my mental illness. It doesn’t mean I’m afraid of these things. Although panic feels like fear, it doesn’t always have clear connection to the trigger. It doesn’t mean I will avoid these things. Will I stop traveling? Will I stop working while going to school? No. I definitely won’t stop talking about my mental illness. Instead, I manage. I understand the importance of medication in my recovery. Medication gets me to a place where I can manage my symptoms. I’ve had to accept their help instead of feeling weak for needing medication.
In my experience, I’ve learned there’s one thing that is incredibly important when recovering from a mental illness: talking about it. It’s the hardest thing to do sometimes. When I’m depressed, it’s really hard to connect to others because there’s this giant wall between my brain and the world. I want to hide and pretend it’s not happening. I need to talk, though. I can’t hold everything inside me though, or it will eat me alive. I need to hold onto the people who care for me, who can tell me I’ve gotten through this before and can get through it again. They remind me who I am. If people aren’t there for me, I find new friends.
As much as I wish it was, mental illness is never something I’ll move past. I will never wake up one day and be cured. Mental health is something I have to fight for every day. I fight like hell. It’s a fight I’ll win, though, as long as I keep going.
Rachel is a freelance writer, public health student, and mental health advocate. Her main public health interest lies in creating a better mental healthcare system and overhauling stigma. She volunteers with her local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness as the webmaster and a presenter for the Ending the Silence program. Her favorite hobbies are riding horses, singing, and writing poetry.