I know this post is long. But I think it’s worth the read.
Most people my age (23) can’t celebrate a 10-year anniversary of anything…except maybe puberty. But I can. While it’s not so much a celebration as it is a recognition, today is exactly 10 years since I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
What if every disease was treated like mental illness?
I’m relatively open about my depression and anxiety, which are technically mental illnesses. I have no reason to hide it, but I also have no reason to flaunt it. It’s not something you can’t really notice, unless I open up about it. All the scars are on the inside. It’s a big part of my personality, and that will never change.
Until you’ve known someone with depression and anxiety, and seen them fight through waking up in the morning, leaving the house and performing basic functions to live, you can’t understand it. Even if you’ve seen someone go through it, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to have it. (Yes, I’ll be using “it” as a pronoun for depression and anxiety because that’s what it is to me. It’s an it. And despite 10 years of it, “depression,” is still a difficult word for me to say, or type.)
It is a chemical imbalance in my brain. Serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, blah, blah, blah. I haven’t spent time (since I was first diagnosed at least) trying to understand the technicalities of the disease. I have, however, spent a lot of time trying to understand how it affects my life and how to manage it.
Mental illness affects everyone differently. I’ve had discussions with others who have it, and while there are similarities, it’s always different.
So I’m going to share my story.
In 8th grade, shortly after my family had moved to Blairsburg, I started crying every morning. Every morning. I missed first period pretty much every day, spending the first 45 minutes of my day in my dad’s office crying. If I had to go to class, I would cry at my desk. None of my classmates understood, heck, I didn’t understand. I didn’t really get made fun of (that I heard), but I know I was the weird girl who cried a lot.
My main trigger was leaving the house. Every time I thought about going to school, going to the store, going anywhere, I would cry. I couldn’t control it. I was accused of “trying to get out of stuff” and “having terrible timing,” but none of us understood it.
After three months of this, crying every single morning, and getting no relief, my mom took me to the doctor. Which I hated because I never went to the doctor. My mother and I discussed what was happening with him, and he prescribed antidepressants that also help with anxiety. It didn’t hit me at first (actually, for about a year) that the prescribing of the medicine meant I had this mental illness. All I knew is that I needed help, and this was supposed to help.
The doctor also sent me to a psychiatrist for a review. I told him my story. He asked a lot of questions, and I lied in a lot of answers. What was I supposed to do? I was in 8th grade, my mom was there and this strange man was asking if I had suicidal thoughts. So I lied. He gave the stellar recommendation of, “Yea, take the meds your doctor prescribed.”
So, I started taking the pills. I was prescribed Effexor XR, which was relatively new in 2003. Now that I know more about the healthcare industry, I’m sure my doctor got some kickback. But that doesn’t bother me, because it worked.
I started taking one pill every day. Which, of course, I hated because I didn’t like taking medicine. The doctor told me it wouldn’t work right away, so I didn’t have any expectations. Honestly, I didn’t care. That’s what depression does…it strips your ability to give a shit.
It was about five weeks later when I went to first period…and didn’t cry. This was huge for me! For the first time in four or five months, I did it. I went a day without crying. It sounds like a minor accomplishment for most people, but for me it was bigger than you can imagine. From then on, I had good days and bad days. I still spent plenty of time in my dad’s office crying, but there were days when I didn’t. And that’s all I needed.
Slowly but surely the days I didn’t cry started to out number the days I did cry. I could leave the house without crying (sometimes) and function almost normally.
The Next 10 Years
It does get tiring being tired all the time.
I stayed on that same dose of Effexor for 8 years. I didn’t mess with it. I was scared to. Antidepressants can take so long to work that I didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t want to play with something that was “fine.” I had plenty of ups and downs in those years. Many, many dark lows…many, which I won’t bore you with. But eventually, that original dose wasn’t doing it for me. I was in a bad place, and I had to do something.
It sounds easy. Oh, I’m more sad than usual, I should up my anti-depressant dose. False. I thought I was fine. I thought I was just in a low and I would get better. But I had people around me who recognized that I wasn’t doing well. So I finally went to my doctor (a different one than originally diagnosed me) and asked to switch things up.
I’ll admit, that’s one of the hardest things I’ve done. Again, unless you’ve been through it, it’s hard to conceptualize. But for me, going up on the meds meant I lost. It meant the depression was winning. It meant I couldn’t do it on my own and that I would be on the meds forever. That’s a tough realization to come to, and it took me a couple of months to get over.
But I did it. I went up on the meds. But it didn’t do anything. So, I went up again. So at this point, I’m on triple the dose I was used to. I was in a daze, I wasn’t myself and I didn’t like it. I was on so much medicine, especially for someone my size, that I couldn’t function like that for long. Plus, it made my anxiety worse, which isn’t supposed to happen.
So, I went back to the doctor…again. This time, he put me on a different medicine: Lexapro. It’s in the same family as Effexor, so it works with the same chemicals, but it’s different. There could have been a 4-6 week transition period that was really tough, but luckily, I didn’t have that. I had a smooth transition. In addition to the Lexapro, the doctor gave me Xanax, which was the first time I was put on anything additional for the anxiety.
But, again, luckily, it worked. It’s been maybe a year since I’ve been on this new concoction, and it’s going well. I’m doing better than I could have hoped, and my lows seem to be relatively infrequent. I really am doing well.
Depression vs Anxiety
I love this. Never tell me to “smile.” Never tell me to “get over it.” It’ll just make it worse.
In this post I’ve mentioned both depression and anxiety. They’re not the same thing. Yes, they often come together, but they’re not the same. I have depression with anxiety. Some people have anxiety with depression. Some have other combinations of mental illness. Mine happens to be depression with anxiety.
Depression is the sadness. It’s this deep pit of darkness that can’t be escaped. It’s a hopeless feeling that makes you stop caring about anything. You know those depression medicine commercials that try to depict it? Well, they actually do a pretty good job. It does hurt, both the sufferers and the people around us. It’s exhausting and all you can think is, “Please let it end.” During a deep depression, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s just darkness. The first thing I think when I wake up is that I can’t wait to go back to bed. Because when I’m sleeping, I can’t be sad.
I’ve been blamed for using my depression to get out of things I don’t want to do. False. I couldn’t help it. I have a lot of triggers (things that’ll set my depression off), and if one of those triggers happens, I could spiral. My depression triggers, everyone’s are different, include (but are not limited to): church, big life changes, people talking about suicide, people talking about cutting, stress. There are others, but those have been consistent in the last 10 years.
So that’s the depression part. It’s hard to understand unless you’ve seen it or been through it.
Now onto anxiety. Anxiety is a panic that can’t really be described, but I’ll try. For me, I have anxieties and panic attacks. Anxieties lead to panic attacks, but not always. I have so many anxiety triggers that I can’t list them all here, but I’ll try. From an outsider’s point of view, they seem trivial, which makes it that much harder, because I know they’re trivial, but there’s nothing I can do about it. OK, triggers:
- Noises (whistling, people eating, people drinking, beeping, certain people’s voices, ticking, etc.)
- Time left on the microwave
- Door handles
- Groups of people
- Social interactions
- Not being in control / the unknown
- Physical proximity
- Germs at restaurants and airports (surface germs, not airborne)
- Having my back to the door
- Certain driving situations
- Unfamiliar places
- Hypochondria (my anxiety has me convinced I have a brain tumor. I don’t…or do I?)
That’s certainly not an exclusive list, but just listing them is getting my heart racing so I need to stop. It is important to point out that triggers don’t make sense. I don’t like eating out of public food supplies (like potlucks) because of the germs, but I can drop a piece of food on the floor and totally pick it up and eat it. It doesn’t make sense. None of it does. There’s no rationale behind what’s going to trigger the anxiety, and that makes it hard for people to understand. “Well, this makes you panic but that doesn’t. You must be faking.” Ugh, no, it just isn’t logical.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but I’ll try to explain how it affects me. If I experience a trigger, I start to feel weak and my heart races. Sometimes I get shaky. Then if the trigger goes away, or I take Xanax, that’s it. But, if I continue to be around the trigger, or if I’m already too deep into the anxiety, my heart will race even faster, my brain will go into “flight” mode and I’ll look for a way away from the trigger. My eyesight will start to go and everything will look blurry and unfocused. These all last until I come down from the panic, either naturally or with Xanax.
When you have anxieties, you find ways to “deal” with it. For me, dark, enclosed spaces help (which ironically, would be a trigger for other people). My favorite places to hide during anxiety are closets. They’re dark, enclosed and safe. I can be alone and get away. Who’s going to look for me in a closet? But there aren’t always closets available, so I’ve also used bathrooms (gross), under my desk and in my car.
It’s a terrible feeling to be panicky for what often feels like no reason. And when you’re panicking, you’re alone. Unless you tell someone that you’re panicking (or they pick up on some of the inevitable physical signs) or they find you in a closet, there’s no way anyone will know you’re panicking. Plus, for me at least, when I’m having a panic attack, I want to be alone. I don’t want anyone to know. I’ll admit it afterward, but not often during.
As I said, depression and anxiety affect people so differently, but this is my experience. After 10 years, you’d think I’d be used to it. Nope.
How it Affects My Life
Most people will never know when I’m going through a depression. Because I have to put on that “I’m OK” face.
Depression and anxiety affect my life every single day. Not just because I have to take medicine every day, but also because it’s always on my mind. Yes, I’m lucky that I can have a normal job and at least put on a face when I’m out in public, but it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting wondering when the next panic attack will strike; it’s exhausting pretending not to notice that person who didn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom; it’s exhausting not freaking out when people get in my bubble, eat loudly or hit one of my other triggers; it’s exhausting trying to have a normal social life when doing so just causes me more anxiety. It’s hard.
It makes me not quite normal. My social anxieties make it tough to make new friends, especially close friends, and do social activities, and it makes me really awkward, especially when I’m uncomfortable. I’ve been told it comes off as funny, but after I go all awkward, I replay every stupid thing I said, over and over and over. And I feel stupid because I feel like I can’t control what I say and it comes out as word vomit. My go-to mechanism is to make fun of myself. Yea, that’s not self-defeating.
I also have trouble with emotions. I’m either not emotional at all and I don’t feel a damn thing, or I’m overly emotional, crying or over-reacting to every situation. Neither is better than the other, they both suck. The combination of the depression and anxiety makes it very difficult to know what emotions to display when. Society has taught me how to react, but it’s not often instinctual…I have to work at it. When my illness is bad, I come off as a robot because I don’t have the energy to expend pretending. I really appreciate cues that direct me in how I’m supposed to be feeling—other people’s facial expressions, music, etc. One of my biggest fears of this is that in a future relationship, I won’t be able to fully love someone because I don’t know how, or I can’t feel that emotion. I hope that’s not the case, but it’s something I worry about almost every day.
I get through all this day-to-day junk, often without anyone knowing. I’m lucky that I’m at a point in my life when I’m doing well. When I’m not doing well, I fight every day with myself on whether or not to get out of bed (or my closet, depending).
But, I don’t want pity. I don’t want people to feel bad for me, there’s no reason for that. I just ask that people try to understand, even though it’s hard. Understand that I can’t always be happy, smiling Megan. Understand that I’m not going to want to do something social every single night…that’s exhausting for me. Understand that when I’m crying, all I want is to be treated normally. When I’m crying and someone asks, “What’s wrong?” What am I supposed to say? Technically, there’s nothing wrong…I’m probably just crying for “no reason.” But while I’m used to crying for no reason, society doesn’t understand that. Logic says that if you’re crying, something set you off. But, no, sometimes I just cry because the chemicals in my brain are a little off. The people close to me know just to treat me like normal and pretend I’m not balling my eyes out, and I’ll talk about it after I’ve composed myself.
Two Different Megans
I don’t have multiple personality disorder and I’m not bipolar, but I do like to think of my mental illness in the following way. It’s kind of like there are two Megans. There’s the Megan who has mental illness, and there’s the rational Megan. The rational Megan knows that the depression and anxiety aren’t normal—she can realize when the depression/anxiety are happening. But even though rational Megan recognizes it, there’s nothing she can do about it.
I’m one of the most self-aware depression/anxiety sufferers I know. I’ve taken the time to understand how it affects me and what sets me off. I’m able to look at my illness from an outside perspective (rational Megan), which is both a positive and a negative. It’s a positive because I can understand myself and what I go through. It’s a negative because I realize how illogical it is, and I have to accept the fact that I can’t change it. I can talk about my depression reflectively and from an outside point of view, and whether it’s a positive or negative, most people I know like me can’t do this, so I’ll count myself fortunate.
There’s a huge stigma around mental illness and depression and anxiety and everything. We get called fakers a lot. As I’ve said, unless you’ve been through it, or at least watched someone go through it (hi Mom, Dad, Shannon and James), you just can’t understand. It’s not rational, but it is what it is.
It bothers me when people say things like, “I’ve been diagnosed with depression (or anxiety), but I don’t want to take the medicine, so I just deal with it.” No. That’s not depression/anxiety like I, and many others, have. Honestly, if I didn’t find the medicine when I did, I probably wouldn’t be where I am, maybe not here at all. I don’t know. But I’ve accepted that I need the medicine. I can’t just “deal with it.” It’s not because I’m weak. It’s because I was strong enough to get the help I needed and to understand that I’ll need it for the rest of my life. It took a long time to come to that realization, and sometimes I do feel weak, but in general, I understand.
I’m not out to change everyone’s perceptions about mental illness. But I do want people, especially those close to me, to be aware. Some people who are reading this probably had no idea that I have depression. That’s because everything’s internal. Unless I choose to disclose it, you can’t see it. You can’t see the emotional scars that I live with—the sadness, the worry, the illogical pain. I function normally on the outside, so do other people with depression and anxiety.
What does the future bring? I don’t know. I think about it a lot, and I try to plan (you know, the old anxiety/worry thing), but I have no idea, and I work hard to accept that. I know I’ll be on the medications for the foreseeable future, most likely forever. They can cause birth defects, so I’m constantly thinking about what I’ll do when I want to have kids. Will I be strong enough to go off the meds for my child? I don’t know. I have to accept it either way. That’s my reality.
I don’t really know how to go about ending this long recap of the last 10 years, but it felt good to put my experience on paper. I’ve never done that before. I suppose I can offer to be a resource for anyone wondering about depression/anxiety. Curious? I can help. Wondering if you have it? I can kind of help, but I’ll recommend you see a doctor. Questions are fine. I’m very open about my experience because I think it can help people understand.
This is the first time I’ve really talked about my depression/anxiety “publicly.” I am very open about it, but it’s not something people find out about me until I feel comfortable with them (or am forced to explain why I’m crying or under my desk). But now it’s out there. And while that scares me (future relationships, future employment, etc.), it’s also kind of freeing.
Thanks for reading, and I hope it gives a little more insight into why I am the way I am, and maybe provides a little understanding into the disease that is mental illness.
As I said, you can’t see the scars on the outside. The darkness is on the inside. To function normally, one must push it down. It sucks.