It’s funny…I thought I had already written a post talking about my mental illness but it turns out I hadn’t. I’ve touched on my issues a bit (talking about being an ambivert, for example), but I’ve never really done a full-fledged post.
Oddly, writing and posting this is more nerve-wracking than I expected. Huh. Well, here goes nothing.
I’ve always had some fairly significant social anxiety, especially surrounding things like making phone calls. Friends of my teenage years will recall my inability to, say, order a pizza and any friend of mine knows that I simply won’t call them, even if I want to talk to them.
But I muddled along into adulthood because my friends are awesome and were willing to forgive me never calling them or making overtures about getting together.
Then in 1996 I moved to Los Angeles to follow my fiance. Or to be a bit more specific…have you ever heard of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale? It’s a list of stressful events (both good and bad stress), ranked and scored. My score at that point was pretty impressive, because over the course of a few months, I left my job, moved out of my parents’ house, left behind all my friends, flew cross-country, moved in with my boyfriend’s aunt and uncle, finished my master’s thesis, got married, and started a new job in a totally different and unrelated field. (The scale also includes things like changes in work responsibilities, changes in eating habits, etc., all of which went along with the cross-country move.)
A month or two after I moved to LA, I started getting panic attacks. I didn’t know what they were, but at random points throughout the day, I would develop these feelings of impending doom. My pulse would race, I would sweat and feel nauseated, I was sure something horrible was about to happen, that I was dying, that I wanted to die.
(There are lots of different descriptions of panic attacks, because they tend to be different for different people. In my case, the best description I ever heard was this: Imagine you’re walking down a dark and shadowy street. You turn a corner and are attacked by the biggest, nastiest, most awful monster in the world. Except that there isn’t actually a monster there.)
Now, it’s most common for panic attacks to last for a fairly short period of time, say 15-20 minutes. But because I’m a special kind of special, mine would ebb and flow and continue for hours at a time. And when I wasn’t actually in the middle of an attack, I was living in fear of another attack starting.
But I had to go on with my life, so I would go to work and eat lunch and go shopping, frequently while in the middle of an attack. I became so adept at hiding how terrified I was that nobody, even my husband, could tell what was going on.
I don’t know exactly why I didn’t tell him what I was feeling. Part of it was, I think, that the attacks had me so off-balance I wasn’t thinking anywhere close to straight. I had this vague idea that if I told him, he’d hate me. I don’t know. I also had some other weird ideas going through my head that I don’t want to get into.
This went on for months until I finally broke down and talked to Avi about some of the weird things going on in my head. After that I felt immensely better, so I figured I was all fixed and didn’t need to see a doctor.
Then about a year later, we moved back to Maryland. Remember the stress scale? We did the whole thing in reverse: moved out of our own apartment into my parents’ house, left our jobs, were unemployed, etc. and so on.
I was fine for a little while, got a temporary archaeology job and everything. But then I started having the attacks again. This time I had at least a bit of brain left and I had a great boss, so I went to a doctor. She ran all the usual heart tests and whatnot to make sure I wasn’t really having heart problems and then suggested a mental health professional.
I had a few appointments with a social worker and she was just starting to help…when I got a full-time job and switched health insurance. (::insert my rant about the need for single-payer health care here::) Once again I started to procrastinate. I was busy, I had a new job, I couldn’t find anyone on my insurance taking new patients, I hadn’t had any attacks in a while, blah blah.
And then they started again. It was somewhere around the time Avi came into a room and found me lying on the bed sobbing helplessly that I finally started looking seriously. My boss at the time, thankfully, had a great therapist. A that’s when I finally started to get treatment.
Now, that dry recitation of facts pretty much ignores the way my life narrowed down further and further as I became terrified of when I would get my next panic attack. I stopped wanting to go on vacation. I stopped wanting to go out with friends. I was afraid to do anything or go anywhere. I didn’t entirely become a shut-in, because my husband and friends dragged me out, but it was a close call.
Every time I left the house, left my safety zone, I was sure it was going to lead to a panic attack. And sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t, but every time it did just reinforced my belief that I should stay at home and away from people, because going out and talking to people were obviously causing my panic. Of course, that brilliant theory ignored the fact that at least half my attacks started when I was sleeping and I woke up freaking out because I was sure I was being smothered or drowned.
Therapy and medication helped me improve a bit, further medication coming after I once again collapsed in hysterical tears. I made progress. Panic became something that happened now and then, something I could deal with when it happened. I learned to think more rationally about my social anxiety. (“Is it likely the guy at the pizza place cares about anything other than getting your order? Not really.”)
But then there was pregnancy and childbirth and postpartum panic so terrible I nearly killed myself. I couldn’t sleep for days after my daughter was born and my panic attacks were almost constant during that time. I was sure I couldn’t possibly survive that period, but once again, thanks to the best friends in the entire known universe, I did.
At that same time, a new psychiatrist gave me new medication, which has done wonders. Thanks to him, I was able to take medication during and after my second pregnancy, which greatly reduced the postpartum effects, shrinking them to just a few unhappy days, rather than endless days of misery. (Of course, he couldn’t do anything about the misery of being pregnant, but that’s a bit outside his bailiwick.)
Over the years, thanks to that medication and talk therapy, I’ve improved a great deal. I rarely have full-fledged panic attacks anymore and on the few occasions I’ve come close, I have both psychological and medical treatments for them. They don’t dominate my life any longer.
The fear is still there, though. I’m a lot more confident, but there’s still a piece of me that dissects every conversation after it occurs. Did I talk too much? Did I say something offensive? Should I have made that joke about mothers? Maybe I shouldn’t talk so much about the kids. What if they really don’t like me? What if they never want to talk to me again?
And there’s another piece of me that is convinced that I’m only employed on sufferance. Why would anybody really want to hire me? I’m not that smart. I screw things up all the time. Etc etc etc.
I work hard on those feelings and most of the time I don’t allow them to control my actions. I hang out with friends, I threw myself a birthday party, I throw myself into new work tasks even if they’re scary. But even that much (and I’m still pretty wimpy compared to a lot of people!) has come after a lot of hard work. Hard work from me, the long-suffering Dr. C, two psychiatrists, and the wonders of Big Pharma (much love to Xanax, Klonopin, Paxil, and Zoloft).
It’s hard to admit to a lot of this. Some of my friends know some of this. A few probably know most of it. I don’t know if I’ve ever sat down and laid the whole thing out. Heck, even this account is missing a lot–some because it’s simply too personal and some because so much has happened that I’ve forgotten a lot of it!
For about 15 years, I’ve suffered from panic disorder. The social anxiety started who knows when. I’ve had a few minor bouts of depression, although nothing as bad as the anxiety and panic. Mental illness has been a big part of my life for a long time.
But I’m blogging about this not so you’ll feel sorry for me. (Don’t. I’m a hell of a lot luckier than the many folks who can’t afford all that medication and expensive talk therapy I’ve paid for.) I want to be one of the many voices saying “Let’s destigmatize mental illness.”
Just like people with chronic illnesses like MS or heart disease. I’m probably going to need medication for the rest of my life. And just like certain chronic illnesses (say, diabetes), there are some lifestyle factors that are involved and those are my responsibility to work on. But there are also biological factors over which I have no control.
I’m sick, but I’m not ashamed. Take me or leave me, this is who I am.