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The best way to help someone with a mental illness? Don't doubt them

November 3, 2014

Unknown authors have said, “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about,” and that, “the loneliest people are the kindest. The saddest people smile the brightest. The most damaged people are the wisest. All because they do not wish to see anyone else suffer the way they do.”

Depression and anxiety are not a choice. If they were, 14.8 million people would choose not to suffer from depression — 42 million would choose to avoid anxiety. We don’t have a box to check that says “opt out.”

My inner war has been raging since I was in high school. It began with mild to severe panic attacks, typically once a week. My heart would start to pound, I would lose my breath and hyperventilate and I would have to excuse myself from whatever it was I was doing so that I could find somewhere to put my head between my knees and wait it out — sometimes mere minutes, sometimes over an hour.

For that indeterminate time I would be afraid for my life, be afraid that I was having a heart attack or that someone was judging me for not being able to help myself, for feeling vulnerable. But there was never just one trigger. The triggers were everywhere.

I had no control over myself.

Nowadays the panic attacks are fewer, but the general anxiety has gotten worse. Depression, something I had always told myself “could never be me,” has slowly emerged and taken over parts of my life.

Anxiety tells me that people are always judging me, staring at me, talking about me, looking down at what I do and telling the world, “she isn’t good enough.” My anxiety keeps me from taking elevators and escalators, tells me to avoid small spaces, forces me to always be afraid of school shooters and groups of more than six strange people.

My anxiety keeps me from pursuing friendships and relationships that I want. It keeps me from asking that one guy that I always flirt with out on a date and keeps me from going to that party where I only know two people. Because what if it goes wrong? What if I manage to screw it up? What if I lose people that I care about in the process? Will I be worse off than where I started?

Anxiety and depression exist in our daily lives as small battles in a larger war for control over ourselves. Sometimes we are defeated. But we power through, and we try to hold our heads up.

For some, that war is still going, and it hasn’t gotten better. As with everything, there are ups and downs. On a good day, I feel like I can take the world in stride and hold my head up high. On a bad day, I spend half the day in bed, too afraid or saddened or frustrated with my own self to kick off the covers.

Once in awhile you find someone that understands what you’re going through, but other times it’s the exact opposite.

I’ve been told by family members and friends not to take medication because I’m “too young” to be on something. I’ve been told I’m “too negative and just have to look for the positives” or that I’m simply “making excuses” and to “quit complaining if you aren’t going to do anything about it.”

This is not what I need. This is not what anyone needs. My inner battles and monstrosities are not an excuse, they aren’t something I can will away with positive thinking and sunshine, and if I could “get over it,” wouldn’t I and millions of people already have chosen to do that? Wouldn’t we have checked that box a very long time ago, before it got this far in the first place?

Telling someone to “get over it” or to “just think positively” or to “stop complaining” is not what you say to someone who is fighting an inner war. You can never be sure how bad someone’s anxiety might be or how truly depressed they are. You never know what someone has been through or what they’re up against. We are fighting battles to get out of bed in the morning and go to class, go to work, to make it through the day without thinking that we’re going to die unexpectedly or have a panic attack in the middle of a crowded room where no one understands what we’re experiencing.

Our feelings and our fears are valid. We are valid.

Do not invalidate us by calling our legitimate fears and feelings “excuses” or that we can get over with a little bit of positive thinking and that if we can’t do it ourselves that we shouldn’t be medicating or going to therapy because we’re too young to have severe problems.

We are fighting battles. We are trying. Some skirmishes might be winnable and some might not be, but every little victory keeps us hanging in the war just a little bit longer.

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