First and foremost, if you’re reading this, and you don’t understand why I am the way that I am, or what it means when I say that I have bipolar disorder coupled with extreme depression and anxiety, partnered with slight OCD tendencies, or you don’t get why I had to quit my job or why I can’t drag myself out of bed, let me say this: I am happy for you. If you don’t understand, that means that you have never experienced the feelings that course through me on a daily basis.
These feelings are ever-changing, but still somehow the same, and I wouldn’t wish these feelings on my worst enemy. Not on the ‘friend’ from high school that started the rumors that led to a many-months long depressive episode that resulted in a 30-pound weight loss. Not on the boy that broke my heart and wrecked every dream that I had ever had for my future. Not even on the man that stole years of love and memories from me and my granddaddy because of his need for speed. Those are the people that have hurt my heart the most, and I wouldn’t even wish this on them. So again, if you don’t understand… please be appreciative of your blissful ignorance.
Let’s start with some definitions (I am an English teacher after all):
Bipolar Disorder: A disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs.
Depression: Feelings of severe despondency and dejection.
Anxiety: A nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviors.
All credits to Google for these definitions.
Now, for the hard part. It’s time to take those definitions and explain what they mean, at least for me. It’s important to recognize that no one has the same mental illness, and that what is true for me may not be true for everyone that suffers from the disorders mentioned above. This is just my side of the story.
I was first diagnosed with mental illness-- bipolar disorder and depression-- when I was about 10 years old. Now, this is early for a mental illness diagnosis, but after my parent’s divorce and my strained relationship with my father, my psychiatrist believed that it was an accurate diagnosis. Brain scans and further “scientific” testing proved that I displayed some of the typical neurological symptoms of depression, and so, while the rest of my friends had no clue that mental illnesses were even a thing, I began taking medication. The hope was that this magic pill would stop the mood swings, the anger and just the general apathy for life that I was experiencing. Even then, I think I displayed signs of anxiety and compulsive disorders.
I remember not eating hardly at all during my 5th grade year, because I heard a dance parent make a comment about “bigger” dancers in the class, and I was anxious about what I would look like in my costume at the end of the year. By the May recital, my dance teachers were yelling at me to “stop sucking in” my stomach, but I wasn’t. I had just lost so much weight that you could just see my ribs. Looking back, I realize that it was all about control. I had no control over anything else and worrying about my size just fueled all the negative thoughts in my head, so I took control of the one thing that I could: food.
In my teenage years, I was embarrassed by my mental illness. So, I told myself that I was “better” and that I didn’t need my medication. I stopped taking my medicine, and perfected my acting skills trying to prove to everyone that I was “okay,” even though I wasn’t. It wasn’t until college that I embraced part of my mental illness, and only because it was negatively influencing my schoolwork. I refused to get anything lower than an ‘A’ in my classes (see obsession above), which led to some extreme study methods (see compulsion above). Even after placing studying before eating, sleeping, or spending time with my loved ones, I was unable to perform my best on in-class examinations. The panic would set in, I couldn’t breathe, and I would feel like I was choking on my own tongue. More than once during my freshman year of college, I had to leave the room during a test, just so I wouldn’t start bawling my eyes out in front of everyone.
In my first linguistics class, I did not finish the first test. I spent the first 30 minutes of the testing period having a panic attack in the bathroom. The worst part was, I knew the information on the test. My brain was just convinced that I was going to fail, that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t smart enough… so I erupted. Tears, gasping for breath, curled up on the first-floor bathroom of the Bate building at East Carolina University. After the test, I called my mom (of course), in hysterics because I knew I was going to receive a poor grade. Mom spent 20 minutes trying to convince me to go talk to my professor. I was afraid, and embarrassed, but I eventually climbed the stairs to my professors second floor office. She showed me more grace than she had to. She wouldn’t allow me to take the test over again, but she agreed to grade it for me while I was in her office.
While she was grading, we talked about my study habits and the anxious feelings that I always got before tests. She convinced me to return to my psychiatrist, stating that I didn’t have to feel the way that I was feeling. That push gave me the strength I needed to put aside my embarrassment and think about what was really best for me. I made an 80 on the test, which wasn’t nearly good enough for me, but after starting the medication my test scores improved. I took two more classes with that same professor. After that first test, the lowest grade I ever made on one of her tests was a 97.
I knew, when I chose to become a teacher, that I was signing up for a life of dealing with teenagers, the politics of education, and the weight of knowing that I am responsible for shaping ‘the future.’ I knew that there would be things that I couldn’t control, and it took almost all of my internship to become “okay” with my perfectly crafted lesson plans not going according to plan. Kids (yes, my teenagers are also kids) are spontaneous. You can’t plan for them, no matter how hard you try. I knew that education was changing, and that I wouldn’t always like the changes that were being made. But I also knew, from the very first lesson that I taught, and the very first class that I loved, that I was meant to be a teacher, a coach, and a mentor to every single kid that walked into my classroom, my gymnasium, or onto my softball field. I knew that I could be the one person that they could always count on to be cheering for them in the stands, especially for the kids who didn’t have anyone else to cheer for them. I became an advocate for the kids labeled as ‘troublemakers,’ and I knew that if I could just change the life of one kid that came through my classroom doors, then all the bullshit that comes along with education would be worth it. I knew all of these things, and I was prepared for them.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was for my mental illness to come back into the ring in full force, always swinging for the knockout. I didn’t know that my anxiety would hold me captive inside my own brain, or that my depression would become so bad that I couldn’t even stand up in the shower to wash my hair. I didn’t know that going to work every day would become this immovable mountain that, when I tried to climb it, resulted in massive panic attacks, to the point of physical pain, sickness, and exhaustion. I didn’t know that I would have to leave the job, and the kids, that I love so desperately after only three full years in the classroom. And this is what gets tricky, this is what people don’t understand... “What do you mean you had to quit your job? Just because you’re sad?” Or, “I get anxious too… you just have to pull yourself together.” I have gotten almost every variation of these statements from all kinds of people, even people that I thought knew me better than anyone else. But, if we’re being honest, you just can’t understand unless you’ve lived it.
Depression isn’t just being sad, it’s so much more. It’s being unable to shower, or get out of the bed, or change out of your pajamas for days on end. It’s being physically present in a room, but completely checked out. It’s feeling miles and miles away from everyone you love, even if you’re sitting in the same room. It’s being completely apathetic, because it takes too much energy to care. It’s feeling like you have nothing to contribute to the world, like you’ve failed, like you’re worthless. It’s feeling like you aren’t worthy of being loved-- not by your friends, your family, or your significant other. It’s feeling like there isn’t a point in getting up every day and living your life. It’s wanting to live, it’s wanting to live so desperately, but for some reason you just can’t. It’s existing. Not living… just existing. It’s frustrating, it’s miserable, and it’s unexplainable. It makes no sense, even to the person who is living it. There is no reason to feel like a prisoner in your own body, but you do. “Just choose to be happy”, they say… believe me-- I am trying. But depression is like watching a comedic tv show, and knowing that it is supposed to be funny, even seeing with your own eyes and hearing the comedy with your own ears but being unable to get any joy from it. Trust me, if it was a choice, I would make it. But I can’t, and it’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever lived with.
Anxiety… it’s amazing how many people overuse the phrase “I have anxiety about____.” Anxiety isn’t just being nervous or worrying about something like a test, or a first date.
Anxiety is having panic attacks over things that you know, in your brain, are irrational. But for some reason, those things are the largest mountains to climb. I’ve had panic attacks over many things… and most of them wouldn’t be a “big deal” to most people. And when I say panic attack, I mean barely able to breathe, gasping for air, feeling like you’re going to pass out when tears are steaming like rivers down your face. It’s shaking so badly that you must pull your car over because you can’t stay on the right side of the road. It’s rocking back and forth on the bathroom floor with the door locked and the shower running so no one knows you’re crying. These reactions can come at any time, over any stressor. Something as simple as getting dressed for an event can turn into a panic attack, especially when you’ve gained weight because you’re in the middle of a major depressive episode. The two fuel one another in an endless cycle… I can’t get dressed because of my anxiety but sitting around in my pajamas all day just adds to my depression.
It’s important to remember that these triggers are different for every person that suffers from anxiety, and to the “normal” eye, these triggers may seem minute, but for the one suffering, they are anything but. For me, one of my biggest stressors has always been being late.I mentally cannot handle being late for an event, because when you walk in late people stare and you KNOW they’re judging you. Or at least that’s what my brain tells me. So, if I’m going to be late, I just won’t go. I joke that I hope I’m not running late to my own wedding, because if I am then it’ll have to be rescheduled. I call that a joke… but it’s true. Anxiety is like the cousin to depression. You know that cousin you have that is more like a sibling, and somehow you always get into more trouble when you’re together? That’s the relationship with anxiety and depression… they’re bad enough on their own, but together they’re insurmountable.
I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, and maybe that’s the point. Anxiety and depression aren’t things that can be explained. They can’t be defined by a certain set of characteristics. There are no “exacts” when it comes to anxiety and depression, or any mental illness for that matter. And, most importantly, they can’t be seen. It’s the most difficult thing in the world, to be wrecked by diseases that leave no physical markers. You can’t see bruises from when I’ve been assaulted by my anxiety. There’s no rash that appears during a major depressive episode. There isn’t a brace that you can put on your brain that will somehow “fix” all the things that are wrong with you. Because people can’t see it, and they don’t know how to define it, they don’t always know what to do with their loved ones that are suffering from mental illness. They don’t know how to help, or they don’t really understand why it’s such a big deal. And really, there’s nothing that you, as an outsider, can do to magically “make it better.” But if you have a loved one who suffers from mental illness, please do this: love them. Believe them. Remind them every day that they are worthy and that they will, one day, get through this. Be there for them during the highs and the lows. And, most importantly, save your judgements. Having a mental illness doesn’t make a person weak, or lazy, or any other word that you may want to attribute to them.
In fact, people living every day despite their mental illnesses are some of the strongest people in the world. I am one of the strongest people in the world.