- Posted May 18, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
Making peace with mental illness
My symptoms began slowly when I was a preteen, before we knew to look for mental illness in my family. Although I am not the first in my lineage to live with mental illness, I am the first to seek treatment and certainly the only one to talk openly and comfortably about it. I talk about mental illness to prevent it from being a shameful secret.
I have never been hospitalized, but I should have been. My family was too afraid of the label that might follow me beyond my teen years, through to college, career, and the remainder of my life. At age 16, when my anxieties and compulsions were diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the overwhelming sadness called “depression”, I went home with medications and an appointment with a behavioral specialist.
I thought of death often, I cried and laughed too easily, I was exhausted, and I slowly began to gain weight. I always assumed my body was disgusting (125-135 pounds at any given time during my high school years), so the extra ten pounds only started to validate my negative self-image. By the end of my freshman year of college, that number had grown at least another twenty pounds. I did not eat well, I did not sleep well, I avoided social interaction and feared people were always looking at me. I formed new obsessive habits that first year in college to survive dorm living. The door to my single bedroom was papered with quotes and thoughts of darkness. I suppose it was a cry for help, though my hall mates only knocked every once in a while to make sure I was OK.
I transferred closer to home for the remainder of college. At age 19 my doctor prescribed a new medication she said might be more effective for my depression and I vowed to curb my stress eating. But neither of us succeeded. By my junior year I was emotionally numb and also stopped looking at the scale, which at last count read 215 pounds. The tiredness persisted as did the haze and the emptiness. I constantly thought of taking my own life, though I feared failing at my attempt more than I feared continuing the life I desperately hated. Sometimes, I wondered if the presumed heart attacks I was experiencing might be what would end my life for me, only to learn they were panic attacks.
While I struggled, so too did those who loved me the most. I come from a wonderful and supportive family with parents who adore me. I had everything I could want or wish for, except of course a mind that did not make me hate myself. And so, I hid my battle well from my classmates and professors. Perhaps I did not smile all the time, but I achieved academically in private school, I took on leadership roles, and I made a few friends. It was my personal charade because I feared anyone knowing who I really was.
It was junior year that my mother came across an article that changed both our lives. I definitely had OCD, but I might not have depression alone—and I do not say that lightly. Depression is an evil master over any life, including mine. But my illness was different and was being improperly treated: I have bipolar II disorder, and the depression medication was making my symptoms worse. I needed a mood stabilizer.
For more than a decade now, I have been freed. Though depression still grabs hold of me when it pleases, though I have been through a gamut of treatment methods that caused terrible side effects, though I have faced down doctors and laypeople who seek to discriminate against me, I have found who I am and how to proceed with my life.
I have earned two master’s degrees, lived in various parts of the country, made many friends, and found a comfort level I never assumed was possible. I also discovered additional health problems that require treatment, which were overlooked by health care professionals who blamed my “mental illness”. I sought out an endocrinologist who diagnosed my thyroid disease, after my GP dismissed my concerns. And even though I have a family history of sleep apnea, I had to argue with a specialist until he agreed to order a sleep study. I do indeed have sleep apnea, and had surgery for it. Sleep apnea can have serious health consequences if left untreated.
At age 21, changing to proper medications took 40 pounds in less than two months. I worked off the rest at the gym. Now in my early 30s, while my weight fluctuates with life and age (between 130-150 pounds), I no longer believe myself to be fat. I have come to understand and accept my symptoms, and I work with them versus against them, even if it is just calling my mother and crying to her on the phone as tears run down my face during a depressive episode. I welcome all forms of treatment, including medications, therapy, nutrition, exercise, and meditation. Wellness also comes from expression. I talk about living with mental illness; I talk a lot. I surprise people when I do so—perhaps in part because I talk about it so comfortably, or more likely, because they never imagined I live this life. Writing has been a powerful outlet too—I have even finished my first novel, which draws in part from my personal experiences, and I am attempting to have it traditionally published. It follows a young woman discovering what it means to live with a mental illness, what it means to be beautiful, and what it means to be successful. If you’re interested, check it out.
Mental illness is a powerful challenge that must be balanced and addressed, but there is far more to each of us than just a diagnosis.