The Tragedy of Mental Health

Robin Williams. Robin fucking Williams. One of the funniest people on the planet. Gone. He is gone because of a disease that turns the mind against itself. I was shocked and terribly saddened when I learned of his passing. It felt like a punch to the gut.

A friend had posted something on Facebook which sent me on a rabid search of the web. At that moment there were two results to my search; one gossip site proclaiming his death and one rather sketchy looking site proclaiming it was a hoax. I clung to the hope  it was a hoax. We couldn’t lose Robin Williams.

In the back of my mind I recalled he did suffer from depression and had substance abuse issues in his past. The site that was announcing his passing said it was suicide brought on by a severe bout of depression. I know that what I am writing so far is nothing new, nor am I an authority of any sort. I have no degree whatsoever, just my own battles with mental illness and bearing witness to the battles my loved ones have endured, and one that lost her battle.

In the days following Robin’s death there has been a great deal of dialogue. Questions like, “How could he? He was so rich and successful. He was so funny,” etc. What people don’t get is that mental illness doesn’t discriminate and that it is an illness. I skimmed over a few insensitive comments on Facebook. I even fell victim to one mistaken thought myself. For one, very brief moment, I thought it was dreadfully sad he chose to take his life while people like my uncle, who was killed by cancer, wanted nothing more than to live. How selfish. How very selfish.

At that moment, luckily, I got angry. Not at Robin, not at anyone who has ever committed suicide, but at myself. As someone who battles anxiety and mild depression, I, of all people should know better. I do know better. In my sadness though, I forgot, for just a moment.

Mental illness is coming into the open bit by bit but not fast enough. It is not given the same respect or understanding as diseases like cancer or diabetes or anything quantifiable. With mental illness people usually look ok. The same way that sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia look ok. There isn’t a blood test or an ultrasound or an MRI to detect it. Mental illness is a disease of symptoms and feelings and thoughts. So for many, it isn’t real.

Well-meaning people give ineffectual advice like, think yourself out of it, or focus on the happy thoughts, or just breathe. One cannot think themselves out of diabetes, or emphysema. In fact, if someone told a diabetic, “Just don’t think about it and you’ll be fine,” they would be looked at as if they were crazy. Yet, for people suffering from mental illness it is common practice to tell them to think their way out of their disease. It doesn’t work like that…

I have general anxiety disorder and mild depression. There are days that I’m scared to death, panicked, over nothing. I may wake up that way or it may hit me out of nowhere, in the middle of my day. Imagine waking up from an intensely scary dream, your heart pounding,being totally overwhelmed with fear. Now imagine feeling that way for no apparent reason. That is what a panic attack is like.

I cannot even count the number of times I have argued with myself, trying desperately to tell myself there is no reason to feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Calm down, breathe. Focus. I’m fine. But I am not fine, not in those moments. In those moments, I’m terrified, or feel like I am dying, or want to cry because internally I am out of fucking control. I’m shook up, on the inside.

I went years feeling detached from the world around me, feeling numb. I was sad and angry. I was filled with rage. I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t tell a single person why. I have a good life. I have two loving parents who are still together. I grew up in a stable home environment. I have been surrounded by a loving, extended family. I have never been raped or molested or kidnapped or beaten. By all accounts and measures, I have a good life. No trauma to “explain,” why I have these issues.

Yet, I have a mental illness. It turns out, it runs in my family. While I do, in some ways, count it as a blessing- it gives me an empathy and understanding that no outsider can truly feel- it is also a curse. Freaking out over nothing? Sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and suddenly feeling like I can’t breathe, that I am dying? It’s awful. Experiencing tension throughout my body  that is so painful and an ever churning mind that I cannot shut off? Torture. Having my stomach in knots, heart pounding, and feeling split in two? Certainly not fun.  

When my anxiety is running high I am like two people in the same body. There is the version of me that others see, the version that is trying desperately to act normal and carry on like everything is ok. Then there is the other side, the darker side, the one that is struggling terribly, trying desperately to coach myself through the situation.

Try having a conversation with a total stranger, staying focused and coherent, while inside your heart is pounding, breathing is difficult, you feel tingly, you want to run away, you want to scream, you want to cry, you think you’re going to be sick, maybe your face feels numb, or you have odd pains, you wonder if you’re having a heart attack or stroking out… So many feelings, all of the feelings, wrapped in panic and fear and worry, happening inside of you all at once. Welcome to my life. Welcome to the life of someone with a mental illness. Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? To top it off you feel dumb because you know its totally illogical, there is no threat, no danger. The panic is useless but it’s still there, unrelenting.

Sometimes I wish for education sake, people could be forced into a panic attack, just once, so they would get it. So they would see how thoroughly futile it is to “think your way out of it” I wouldn’t wish an anxiety disorder on anyone but if everyone could feel it just one time…

Depression is even scarier. I have mild bouts of depression from time to time. I have never been suicidal. Suicide was an intrusive thought, a tempting release from the pain I was in. It was dark and beautiful and poetic. It would mean having some semblance of control when everything else felt hopeless. Or it would be a way to punish those that hurt me. However, I am lucky, for me it was just a pretty idea to write about in morbid poetry. That was enough of a release for me. I’ve also never been a cutter, and while I have occasionally had too much to drink, I don’t use alcohol to self-medicate or treat my anxiety and depression.

I am lucky while others are not as lucky. There are people that I love that are Bi-Polar II. It painful to watch them spiral out of control as they enter their lows. To know they are engulfed in despair. To know I’ve been there but never as dark or as deep as them. I know what it’s like to sleep away life, I’ve done it. I know what it is like to feel… Nothing. To simply exist and go through the motions day after day. I know what it is like to hate yourself completely. To not find a single redeeming quality about yourself. I’ve been there. Still, as dark as I got, wrapped up in my own misery, I have always seen light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe faint at time. Sometimes things felt completely pointless but there was always a shred of hope. Not everyone is as fortunate.

One of my friends committed suicide a year ago. She had fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, she lived with her abusive mother, she was in her thirties but couldn’t hold down a job due to her health issues. Some days were good, some were awful. There were days she couldn’t get out of bed because the pain was so bad. She was hospitalized many times for her Crohns disease. She had such dreams, such beauty inside of her, compassion for others. Yet, the suffering, her diseases were too much. She couldn’t make it through. I was heartbroken when I learned of her suicide. I was angry. I questioned myself if I could have saved her. I was sad because she was gone from this earth. I was sad for the hand she was dealt. In the end though, no matter what I felt, no matter what I said, no matter what I did or could do… I was not her. I didn’t know the extent of her demons, the depths of her despair, or the hopelessness that swallowed her up.

I do not condone suicide but I do ‘get it,’  I can understand being at war within yourself, feeling hopeless and beaten. Knowing that so many people suspect you’re lazy or faking it, or that life just isn’t that bad. As someone that suffers from mental illness I know the dialogue society still has about it. “Everyone has stress, you need to learn to deal with it.” There is still a stigma, plenty of judgement, and a gross lack of understanding. I hope one day, that won’t be true. People with mental illness are so busy fighting within ourselves we don’t need to defend ourselves against the world too.

*** To be clear, I am currently in a good place, my anxiety seems to be under control again and I’m not “down,” or otherwise affected by depression. However, they are a part of me, so this topic really hits home and I felt the need to voice what it is like to suffer.

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3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Mental Health

  1. Thanks for finding the courage to be transparent enough to help people gain a better understanding of what anxiety and panic attacks are like. It is with education that we become more aware. Awareness brings potential of change and acceptance.

    • You’re welcome! That was my hope in sharing, to be a voice for others who may not be as comfortable to share. It’s a scary thing, panic attacks and anxiety. So is being vulnerable. Glad it’s been so well received! Thank you!

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