I’m proud to say that I’m mentally ill.
That sentence probably made a lot of people squirm, which is an indication that we still have a lot of work to do regarding the stigma associated with mental illness. But I stand by my statement.
In retrospect, I’ve always been a bit anxious and prone to feeling down (even as a very young child). In my junior year of high school, things were really tough and I felt incredibly upset on a daily basis and was having trouble with no appetite.
The doctors thought I was anemic, which I happily accepted as the cause of my issues. It really should have been the first indication that something was direly wrong, but it cleared up on its own my senior year of high school and I was back to myself again. Similar issues happened in my mid-20s but to a much lesser degree, so I didn’t really seek help regularly.
The thing that precipitated the worst downward spiral in my mental health was pregnancy and motherhood. I was 33 when I had my daughter and had been feeling great for several years leading up to my pregnancy. I was running regularly, eating well and had just married my husband. We were living well, enjoying our careers in Silicon Valley as engineers and traveling quite a bit. I was even training for my very first marathon ever… until I found out I was pregnant.
This news floored me. My husband and I hadn’t planned on having kids (due to our age difference: 18 years), and we were living in a tiny little apartment. Thankfully the pregnancy was a smooth one. But after I had my daughter, things just never “felt” the same. I cried – A LOT. I was so sleep deprived. I was forced to stop running altogether and forfeit my marathon plans. I was envious of other moms who seemed to fall into motherhood like they were MADE for the job.
Not long after that, when my daughter was 10 months old, we left all family and any remnants of a support network behind and moved to Colorado for work. And bought a house. And started new jobs. And put my daughter in daycare for the first time. This was immensely stressful, but I kept muscling forward just as I’d always done throughout my life.
This continued on until shortly before my daughter turned 2, and that’s when the world went black for me. I began losing my appetite and feeling unbearable nausea almost constantly. I had panic attacks for no reason. I could not sleep more than 45 minutes at a time and had frightening thoughts of bad things happening to me. I went to my primary care doctor several times and tried several things, but kept getting misdiagnosed. “Indigestion,” or “Go see a gastroenterologist!” or “You have an eating disorder” and even, “Maybe you’re bipolar, go see a psychiatrist.”
After two months of this, a 20-lb weight loss, and frighteningly little sleep, I could no longer see a tomorrow. All I could see was nothingness. It was hurting my family to see me like this… I contemplated suicide. It was almost involuntary when it first happened and it horrified me beyond anything I’d ever felt.
I needed help. Right away. I remember driving to my first psychiatrist appointment and thinking, “If he can’t help me, then this is the end…” Thankfully, he DID help me. We tried several medications (which, to those familiar with the process, is like professional dart-throwing), and some made me worse. But I wasn’t going to give up: my daughter needed me, and she needed me WELL.
My psychiatrist encouraged me to ask my mom and dad about family history of mental illness, which led to my discovery of a strong genetic predisposition to depression/anxiety on my dad’s side. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, comorbid (I hate that word, but doctors love it) with Sever Anxiety. This led me to start taking the medication that saved my life (and that my dad also takes): Paxil.
I began the healing process. I took the medication faithfully. I started running again. The diagnosis was still a shock to me and I was initially ashamed of it: I felt like an inmate that had just escaped a maximum security prison and was trying to walk around like nothing ever happened. The stories of others who had been in similar situations was like a magic salve to my soul
People who made the conscious choice to open up to me about their own mental health struggles are the ones that encouraged me to accept it for what it is and NOT be ashamed of it. In fact, as the months went on, I started to realize that I was a different person: more calm, more compassionate, more kind, more appreciative. ALL of these wonderful things blossomed in me after dealing directly with my mental illness.
Gifts that I probably would never have received had I not gone through such an experience. I was even able to finish my first full marathon, and then my SECOND full marathon - all after that harrowing chapter in my life! I have made a pact with myself to abstain from silence: to NOT be part of the problem when it comes to mental health. Escaped inmates live in hiding and fear – I am NOT an escaped inmate… I am proud of my mental illness and all the rewards I’ve reaped from it.
I am more than willing to talk about it to anyone who may want some comfort. I’m ready to help others profit from that pain.
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