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Column: ‘You’re not alone’: My experiences with mental illness

September 2, 2020
Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

Dear diary,

Mental illness is scary, but actually following through by reaching out for help is scarier.

Why is that, do you think?

I’d have to say because of the long-taught, institutionalized societal stigma, romanticization and ignorance around what it’s truly like living with mental illnesses and needing therapy or medication, probably.

Types of mental illness.

Mental illnesses are not adjectives. They are not a bandwagon media trend. It is not cute, relatable or quirky to have a mental illness.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), there are 12 different conditions a person could be diagnosed with. These include:

  • Anxiety disorders — everyone experiences anxiety, but those professionally diagnosed face overwhelming and constant symptoms that impact daily life. Being anxious in a specific moment is different from having anxiety.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — a developmental disorder defined by inattention, disorganization and hyperactivity-impulsivity.
  • Bipolar disorder — dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. Those diagnosed experience extreme high and low moods, also known as mania and depression.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) — a pattern of instability in emotions, interpersonal relationships and self-image.
  • Depression — recurrent, severe periods of clear-cut changes in mood, thought processes and motivation that lasts for a minimum of two weeks. This typically includes negative thoughts and feelings of hopelessness and can affect sleep, energy, appetite or weight.
  • Dissociative disorders — frequently associated with trauma and disrupt every area of psychological function.
  • Eating disorders — intentional changing of food consumption to the point where physical health or social behaviors are affected.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors that a person feels driven to perform (compulsions) in response to those thoughts.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — involves a set of psychological and physiological responses. It can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, assault, war or combat, etc.
  • Psychosis — disruptions to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for them to recognize reality and falsity.
  • Schizoaffective disorder — involves symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as depressive or manic moods.
  • Schizophrenia — interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, relate to others and lose touch with reality.

My (very summarized) experiences with mental illness.

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For those of you that suffer with mental illness, for those of you who are like me, who rely on holding the hand of several different medical professionals while you analyze your past and present in order to rebuild your future, I know your brain can be a scary place, especially when it acts against you.

My brain often goes so far as to try and convince me that I’m lying about what I go through, even though my medical records state otherwise.

You’re not alone.

NAMI reported that 1 in 5 U.S. adults will experience mental illness each year, while 1 in 25 will experience a more severe level of it. One in 6 U.S. youths ages 6-17 will also experience a mental illness each year – 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin in this age group, around 14 years old, and 75% by 24 years old.

I was diagnosed with anxiety at the age of five, depression at 16 and OCD at 19. Now at 20, though I’m not diagnosed with anything else, my weight is also being monitored, and I’ve been offered trauma recovery resources a handful of times.

I never truly noticed how bad my anxiety was because, up until 12th grade, it came in subtle forms — stomach aches, profuse sweating, an inability to speak out around or to strangers, bathroom shyness, etc. And it still does.

However, I have also started to experience the more severe end of the spectrum — panic attacks with dry mouth, hyperventilating, heavy chest pain, lightheadedness, nausea and sometimes even vomiting.

I vividly remember my first panic attack. It was shortly into my final semester of high school. I had to leave math class because my entire body felt light and hot, and I sobbed in the bathroom while shakily texting my best friend, asking her to come find me.

There was no trigger, sometimes there isn’t, and I believe that’s the hardest part to grasp.

When I was diagnosed with depression, a disorder that often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, I put myself through my first round of therapy.

My experiences with depression are, more often than not, specifically tied to loss, though I don’t discredit the days where getting out of bed, socializing and completing menial tasks feels almost impossible for no reason.

It feels almost shallow to say, but my first episode, for lack of a better term, was tied to my first breakup.

High school relationships are naïve, but it was the terms he ended things on where the toxicity really messed with my head.

While I’ve learned to cope with my depression better than my other conditions, I still have to remind myself daily that I'm not too much to handle, that I'm worthy of receiving the same type of love I give others.

When I was diagnosed with OCD, it felt like the clouds had parted to a clear, blue sky. I know, why would I be relieved to know I have another mental illness?

Because it made some of the abnormal things I was doing on a daily basis feel validated. I was able to put a label on it and understand another piece of myself.

Things like checking that doors were locked and burners on the stove were off six times before I left the house or went to bed; sensory overload; violent what-if scenarios in innocent situations; excessively list making; the overwhelming desire to tell my thoughts to anyone or touch and fiddle with things in sight; obsessing over my health and panicking over any minor ailment, etc.

Recently, I met with a psychiatrist for anxiety medication and a nutritionist for weight restoration. Therapy used to make me feel abnormal, but now I'm in search of my third therapist.

Mental recovery and self-awareness is a marathon, not a sprint. Same as physical recovery, it cannot be hurried or ignored. It’s OK to not be OK and to need an extra push.

Warning signs for mental illness.

According to NAMI, telling the difference between what may be expected behaviors and what may be the signs of mental illness isn’t always easy. There is no straight answer or test and each person’s experiences and symptoms are different. You could be:

  • Excessively worried or afraid
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Experiencing confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Experiencing extreme mood changes
  • Experiencing prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Experiencing difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Experiencing changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Experiencing changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Experiencing changes in sex drive
  • Experiencing difficulty perceiving reality
  • Experiencing an inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality
  • Overusing substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Experiencing multiple physical ailments without obvious causes
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Experiencing an inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • Experiencing an intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

There are countless ways to cope and treat these conditions and symptoms. If you feel like any of this information may apply to you, I encourage you to reach out to MSU’s Counseling and Psychiatry Services (CAPS) for consultation to learn what might suit you best.

This article is part of our Welcome Week print edition. Read the full issue here.


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