May is a time for flowers, mothers and, at least in Memphis, city-wide parties. It is also a time for mental health awareness. I struggled with whether or not to write this post, but I’m taking a deep breath and being brave.
I do not consider myself “crazy,” but I do live with a mental illness. I am also a functioning and productive member of society with a family, a job and a lot of passions. There’s often a stigma attached to the words mentally ill. It conjures up visions of not-guilty-by-reason-of-mental-disease-or-defect pleas on Law & Order. The reality is that millions of people in the U.S. are just like me.
In other words, I fall into the 18.1% of Americans (as quoted from NAMI) who live with an anxiety disorder. More specifically, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as well as depression. To be clear, diagnosed means that a medical professional has evaluated my symptoms and given me a formal diagnosis. Not the internet. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-5) criteria for a GAD diagnosis as listed on the Mayo Clinic‘s website are:
- Excessive anxiety and worry about several events or activities most days of the week for at least six months
- Difficulty controlling your feelings of worry
- At least three of the following symptoms in adults and one of the following in children: restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, muscle tension or sleep problems
- Anxiety or worry that causes you significant distress or interferes with your daily life
- Anxiety that isn’t related to another mental health condition, such as panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, or a medical condition
I started noticing that something wasn’t right during my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t have the knowledge to know what was going on, but I did know that crying uncontrollably and not being able to articulate why was not normal behavior. Like the teenager that I was, I was ashamed and thought it was a failing on my part for not being better or stronger. I didn’t tell anybody and tried to outwork it. I figured that I could be better and then no one would need to know that I felt out of control. My high school was a high-stress environment, which added further fuel to my candle that was already burning on both ends.
When I got to college, things got worse. Instead of breaking down every once in a while, it began to happen multiple times a week. There was one big change though–I wasn’t doing it alone anymore. I met Greg on the second day of college orientation. We had known each other for a week when I told him what I felt was my big, embarrassing secret. Actually, I didn’t tell, I cried. And he stayed and showed up the next day and every day since.
In addition to letting me cry in his room after I crammed as much as humanly possible into my day (trying to outwork it, remember?), Greg helped me come up with strategies to minimize the enormous pressure I was putting on myself. Clutter gave me anxiety? He helped me pack my dorm and move back into my parents’ house each spring. Couldn’t say what was wrong? That’s ok, just try to put the apprehensions into words. Most importantly, he helped me come to the decision to talk to my doctor about the fact that I was always worried.
After years of building up reasons to keep all this to myself, I was shocked at how fast things happened once I broke the silence. My doctor listened, gave me a prescription for a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, told me to stick with it as the medication built up in my system, and sent me on my way. My supportive coworkers encouraged me to see a psychiatrist who ended up putting me on a higher dosage of the same medication. Within a month, I felt better than I had in years. Combined with the medication is a decade’s worth of lifestyle changes that I adopted to help me deal with the triggers of my anxiety. For example, I cannot focus when there is clutter, which is why everything in my house has a place. I still feel anxiety, but it doesn’t rule my life. I no longer spend hours each day worried about nothing in particular.
Most importantly, I started telling people that I have GAD. I don’t make up excuse for myself when I need to leave a room because I’m feeling anxious. I just go, and if people ask, I tell them the truth. My alarm goes off at 6:45 every night to take my medication. If someone asks me what I’m taking, I tell them.
Because I have a chronic mental illness, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.