by Alicia Smith
For 34 years I was self-employed; working for a lunatic. I worked long, hard and successfully but used work as a way to “escape” my mental illness. Many years later I realized that work was my coping mechanism. Many people engage in drugs, sex, gambling, alcohol, cigarettes and other vices; my escape was work and sugar, my “drugs” of choice.
I am not a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist or mental health professional. I have, however, been a consumer of all. I am not flaky, undependable, or crazy. My three cats might have argued that point when I surprised them by bringing home my first dog, Hunka Hunka Burning Love, a St. Bernard mix, much less the second dog, Tipsy Tella Thunderpaws, a Great Dane.
I am one of the many faces of mental illness. My original diagnosis was major depression (diagnosed at age 14) and since then we’ve added Bipolar II, PTSD and Agoraphobia. I am not alone. The number of people living with a severe disabling mental illness is close to 20% of the population–one in five. Believe me…we’re everywhere!
I hear people speak of “suffering” with and “battling” depression. For me this is not a war and it cannot be defeated. Depression is a brain disorder and I’ve learned it’s best to not struggle against it. Depression, mania, anxiety, stress, hallucinations, sleeping too much, sleeping too little and sugar addiction are all a part of my daily life. Some days, months and years are better than others but none are without the weight of one aspect or another of my mental illness. It is a constant companion although not generally a welcome one.
Mental illness is an isolating disease. Often, when a depressed or distressed person reaches out to someone else, that person, often out of ignorance, is dismissive, shares a platitude or tells you to get over it. It’s the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude. The real message that gets delivered is: “It’s not safe for me to say this. I shouldn’t share with this person what I’m feeling.” What I want to say is…I don’t have bootstraps!
Part of my mission in sharing my story is to model breaking that loop. I am frustrated by the stigma and lack of open and honest conversation about mental illness. The undeserved shame and lack of conversation keeps people increasingly isolated. Isolation leads to despair, hopelessness, lack of self-esteem, low self-worth and thoughts, if not actions, of suicide.
To make it worse, mental illness is often misdiagnosed and mistreated. You may go to your family doctor with complaints of exhaustion, feeling achy all over, having stomach problems, headaches, or other pains. All of these can be found in mental illness, but can also be attributed to a number of other illnesses. Mental illness may not be caught early and you might be diagnosed and treated for something else in a well-meaning effort to get you quick relief. After all, who wants to experience the negative side effects of mental illness? There is a real need to diagnose and treat mental illness quickly. It’s the primary reason I advocate for early diagnosis, intervention and treatment. It does make a difference.
Psychiatric medications can create havoc on an already ravaged body and soul but they can also help me lead a more functional life. Mental illness is not a personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. However, it can most often be successfully diagnosed and treated.
Beyond meds there are effective therapies and the concept of Recovery to help us live the best life possible; given the hand we were dealt. There is no cure for Mental Illness at this point in time, but increasing our self-awareness and self-care, and creating a plan for an improved life is referred to as Recovery. No physician or psychiatrist ever spoke of the concept of Recovery to me. Drugs, YES. Recovery, NO.
Support groups are available for those of us living with mental illness and for family members and friends. Most people come in feeling as though they’re terminally unique. Nobody else will understand what they’ve gone through. Yet, when you hear others’ stories not only do you realize that people do understand what you’ve gone through, but some people have gone through much, much worse and survived!
I experience a sense of frustration that will no longer be silenced. I want my voice to add to a nationwide conversation about mental illness and I invite you to join us. Sharing your story will make a difference.
Check out more mental health related articles in KRL’s Mental Health, with extra ones this month in honor of Mental Health Month.