It usually starts in my chest. The weight of the world is pressing down on me as if I were being crushed under a slab of concrete. Giles Corey rolls over in his grave, and I am far from crying out for more weight. My rib cage feels like it could crack at any moment, deflating my lungs as it all tumbles down. I think I’m going to suffocate.
Then it starts to burn. It aches, my chest wall engulfed in conflagration, burning everything within it to a crisp. I can almost taste the ash.
The little monsters in my brain catch on; they start to worry. The rational part of my brain, the part the monsters have yet to grab hold of, tells me to calm down. That I’m okay. That I’ll make it. That I’ve done this before.
The monsters don’t like that at all. They tell me it’s only going to get worse, that I can’t get out of this one. They show me flashbacks of the times I’ve spent crying on the bathroom floor of restaurants and academic buildings, the times I’ve clawed my skin raw just to feel anything but the insanity taking over my mind. They remind me that I’m not strong enough to pull through, not this time anyway.
My hands become clammy, sweat pooling in the chasms of my palms, the “M” shapes I once traced with my fingertips creating rivers for my anxieties to flow through. They start to shake; the trembles trek tumultuously through my hands and into the rest of my body. I am far from cold, but I shiver and twitch like I’ve been trapped in the arctic for days. The convulsions starve my muscles, the aches mimicking the fire in my chest.
I try to swallow, but I can’t. I try to breathe slowly–in through my nose and out through my mouth, like I have been taught to do–but it’s not enough. My breaths come unevenly, my chest rising and falling in jerks and quakes. It hurts to move.
I’ve lost control of the one thing that was supposed to be mine, my mind the master of the extremities I’ve walked with for 19 years now no longer mine at all. The monsters have taken the joystick and learned all the codes: they are the masters now.
The monsters start panicking. They tell me I’m going to die. They convince me that these are my final, unbearable moments before everything I’ve ever known dissipates before my eyes.
Usually, I can stay somewhat composed. I can keep my shallow breaths quiet, and my tears roll silently down my cheeks. My head rests on my knees as the bathroom tiles slowly stop swirling, and I pull myself out of it and suffer without so much as a whimper. I can return to class or the party or the dinner table without anyone knowing that mere moments before, I was losing control.
But sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes I start to hyperventilate. Sometimes I throw up. Sometimes–usually–I start to cry. Sometimes I’m convinced I’m dying. And when it seems to be over, sometimes I collapse on my bed, utterly exhausted and desperate for sleep.
When I think that I’ve finally made it through the thick of things, the monsters start up again. They tell me I’m ridiculous, that I’m stupid, that I’m annoying. They tell me that I shouldn’t have overreacted. They tell me to pull myself together and get over it, that I’m worthless and can’t do anything right. They tell me that I faked the whole thing.
They tell me that they wished I had died.
The rational part of my brain starts to believe them. The monsters invade; they conquer the place they once couldn’t reach, busting down walls with their swords held high and their battle cries thunderous. I pull the covers over my head and curl up so tightly that I almost disappear into myself. I wish that I could.
My sophomore year of high school I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Growing up, I was always the goofy, fun-loving, smiling kid. I was rambunctious, ambitious, and ready to take the world by storm. I loved life and I swear, at some point, it loved me back.
I don’t quite know when I first noticed the little monsters inside my head making their appearance. I thought it was normal to feel the way that I felt.
Apparently, other people didn’t lock themselves in the bathroom when the FedEx guy came to the door, convinced that he was a serial killer looking for his next victim; that they were in their final moments, so unbelievably sure that this was their end; that the safe haven of the bathroom floor was easier to face than the man that was obviously just delivering their Amazon order for Amy Poehler’s critically acclaimed novel, Yes Please!
Apparently, they didn’t lie in bed for hours, or days, unable to find the strength to shower or study or hang out with friends or breathe, all the while criticizing themselves for being lazy, antisocial, and unscholarly.
Apparently, they didn’t blatantly lie about being busy to avoid a particularly stressful situation, like going to school or a party with people they didn’t know–or the grocery store for fear of seeing someone they did know.
I thought it was just how everyone felt. I thought it was normal. It turns out that it was just my normal.
I saw therapist after therapist who only viewed me as another client doling out the cash. I had coping skills thrown at me left and right, none of them working the miracles that these professionals claimed they would. I had grown tired of the empty promises that deep breathing and visualization promised, and was slowly slipping through the cracks. The facade I maintained was almost unbearable, but I was terrified of appearing weak. Few people knew what I was dealing with, and I wanted to keep it that way.
I struggled through the rest of high school. The little monsters inside my head grew teeth and claws. They were bigger now. More ferocious, unrelenting.
All I wanted was to once again be the happy-go-lucky kid who loved to twirl in the kitchen in my ruffled socks and climb the towering trees in the backyard; the wild-child tyke who side-tackled second graders on the town league soccer field and got handed yellow cards by the dozen for whacking lacrosse players in the face with my stick; the exuberant rug rat who made faces at my little sister across the dinner table and snuck books under my pillow when the lights had already been turned off; the wide-eyed hellion who manned sticks like swords in my medieval kingdom of the living room and created galaxies in my bedroom that only I could live in and see. I longed to look in the mirror and like what I saw, to open the refrigerator and not estimate the calories in the items I stared at and wished I could consume without guilt seeping into my bones. I longed to fall asleep at night counting sheep rather than the number of mistakes I had made. I longed to get out of bed each morning excited to take on the day, to have the child-like wonder of the girl I used to be back inside of me.
I longed to be happy.
I went into freshman year of college with a relatively positive outlook: I was desperate for a fresh start. I had just started taking medication for my anxiety and depression, and was hoping that this could help me as I transitioned to the college lifestyle. I had been waiting for this moment for so long and I felt like things could finally start falling into place. After all, everyone said that college was the place you found your lifelong friends and had experiences you’d never forget.
My rare positivity fell short very quickly. I changed my major almost as soon as I arrived, feeling like a failure before I even knew the names of the buildings I walked by each day. I missed home–not surprisingly–and wished I could walk the 93 miles back to the town that shaped me, the same place that I could not wait to escape mere weeks before.
Regardless of my insecurities and the overwhelming waves of homesickness that washed over me more often than not, fall semester came and went. I had gotten so good at pretending that I was okay, that sometimes I even had myself convinced. I aced all of my classes and came out of the year exhausted and slightly concerned for spring.
The following semester seemed to be going better. I made some really great friends, the first time in a long time that I felt like I belonged. I got more involved with campus activities. I joined the newspaper staff and fell in love with editing. These two things kept me busy and surrounded by people I enjoyed spending time with. The monsters died down for a good while. Their claws had been trimmed and their roars had grown hoarse.
Joining clubs and making friends did not, however, negate the utter stress and panic I felt about college and life itself. Regardless of all the great things about spring semester, it was the semester that I started cutting myself.
During previous bouts of extreme anxiety I would claw my skin with my nails, scratching away to distract myself from the unbearable panic that I felt. This time, though, it was different. It was deliberate. It was deep.
It left scars.
Spring semester ended and I realized I needed to get help, so I started seeing my new and current therapist. I finally felt like someone was listening to me and validating all of the feelings I once believed to be unbearable. I actually started opening up. For someone with debilitating trust issues, this was huge for me. She helped me deal with the monsters in my brain in a healthy way. I was actually feeling better.
The monsters did not like that at all. They hated her. They hated the way she made me feel. So they came back with a vengeance, like they had taken steroids and grown twice their original size. The monsters got the better of me, and things took a turn for the worse.
The transition back to college in the fall for my sophomore year knocked me off of my feet. I was now involved in five different activities to keep myself distracted from the realities of mental illness. The monsters were fighting back, and I was losing. I was hiding my problems from everyone. I always wanted everyone to see me as the goofy, happy-go-lucky person I truly believed I was underneath all the secret self-hatred and anxiety.
Suicidal ideation became a part of my crushing reality. It was terrifying. I was exhausted, angry, frustrated, scared, lonely, and just about everything in between. I could barely understand what was happening to me, nevermind how to deal with it. I just wanted it all to stop.
For the first time in my life, I wanted to die. Ultimately, I gave up.
I stopped paying attention in class. I stopped going to class. Most of the time, I physically couldn’t get out of bed, all the while blaming myself for being lazy. I was notorious for being on time and ready to go for all of my activities. Now, I was showing up late, ill-prepared, and unmotivated to work. I began lashing out at the people who meant the most to me, and pushing everyone away.
I was getting increasingly more anxious and depressed; I was spiraling out of control. The monsters in my head had started fighting with each other, battling it out for the upper hand. Essentially, something like this:
Depression Monsters: Nothing matters. You’re worthless and you can’t do anything right. Nothing is ever going to change or get better. You’re lazy. You’re unmotivated. You’re a mess. Nobody cares about you. You’re all alone. Nobody wants you to succeed. You can’t succeed, anyway. Just give up.
Anxiety Monsters: You have to work hard or you’ll never graduate and never get a job and never be happy and you’ll get in so much trouble if you don’t do well you have to be perfect perfect perfect nobody can see what you’re dealing with don’t tell anyone about us work harder be better do better
In October, I left school for a week and was admitted to a psychiatric unit for the first time. To be completely honest, I felt miserable and out of place. Even though the hospitalization got me out of my initial crisis mode and into a safe environment, all I could think about was going back to school and finishing all of the work I was missing. I was on the brink of destruction, confined between the four walls of a mental hospital, and I was worrying about how I was going to catch up on schoolwork. It seems completely irrational, but it was just how I felt.
I struggled through the rest of my fall semester and barely made it out alive. My hospitalization wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; I received therapy, adjusted my medications, and focused only on myself. However, I was so anxious about making up all of my missed work, completing my current work, saving my once-perfect GPA, and keeping up with all of the activities I had thrown myself into, that the monsters in my brain started taking over again. Desperately trying to keep my focus on my slipping grades and various commitments–all the while dealing with self-harm, suicidal ideation, and panic/anxiety attacks–I somehow made it through. I thought that the month-long break before spring semester would be exactly what I needed.
I became increasingly more depressed. My suicidal ideation wasn’t just a lingering thought in my head, but a constant presence in everything I did. I was cutting more frequently. I stayed at home, in bed, all day and all night. I stopped taking my medications. I stopped talking to my friends. Some of my friends stopped talking to me.
I didn’t believe I deserved to get better. I was falling deeper into the monsters’ clutches. Their razor-sharp claws and vampiresque teeth had torn me to shreds. They had me completely convinced that I wasn’t worth anything. They had been trying to completely take over for so long that, eventually, I just let them. I didn’t feel like fighting them anymore. I truly didn’t think I was worth the fight. I just couldn’t do it.
I was holding on by a thread. Christmas came and went, and the thread finally snapped. For the second time in less than three months, I was back in the hospital.
I spent another week inside another psych unit, constantly monitored and watched like some sort of sick tourist attraction. I laid in my hospital bed and watched Dec. 31, 2015 become Jan. 1, 2016 alone, the cries of “Happy New Year!” from the staff echoing throughout the hallways of Med Six. While my friends were out drinking, partying, and laughing 2015 into oblivion, I was watching the shadows dance on my ceiling and wishing I could feel something good again.
I never really understood what people meant when they said you needed to be “ready” to recover. I didn’t think anything could help me, so I didn’t see a point in trying. I thought that I had tried everything–failed–and was therefore hopeless. I believed I was destined for a life of darkness, misery, and despair. I realized during this hospitalization that I didn’t want or have to be miserable for the rest of my life. I needed to advocate for myself and choose to recover, not just let recovery find me.
The biggest discovery I made during this hospitalization, however, was that rather than working towards making my mental illnesses go away, I needed to work toward making them more manageable instead. I didn’t want the monsters in control. I wanted to be in control. I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time.
I was never someone who “looked” like I was struggling. I was conscious of the way I presented myself so as to not let anyone know what was really going on with me. I now know that there are so many other people like me who secretly struggle with mental illness and never show an inkling of distress.
For a long time, I didn’t like telling anyone about my struggle with mental health because I felt like it was just one more thing to prove to myself and others that I was “weak” and “unable to deal with real life.” It wasn’t even until mid-2015 that I used the words “mentally ill” in reference to myself. It used to sound so weird to me. I felt like there was so much shame attached to it, and I worried people would think less of me. I felt like people wouldn’t want to be friends with me because of it. I felt like people would judge me. A lot of the time, I still feel that way. In reality, though, I’m only judging myself.
We can’t change mental illness, and we can’t make it go away. What we can change, however, is how we talk about mental illness, how we treat mental illness, and how we support ourselves and our loved ones with mental illness.
And that’s why I’m writing this. Because for the longest time, I was afraid to talk about what was really going on with me; I was afraid of appearing weak. Even as I am writing this, I fear the backlash and judgement I may receive; however, by telling my story and speaking candidly about my own personal struggles with mental illness, I hope someone out there finds the courage to talk about their struggles. I hope someone out there can say “mentally ill” in reference to themselves with pride and strength instead of with a fearful heart. I hope someone out there can find the courage to seek help, guidance, or comfort in their troubles.
These are the stories I swore I’d never tell, the thoughts I swore I’d never write down, and the parts of myself I swore I’d never show. But here I am. This is my heart on my sleeve.
Sandra with her friend Nick
Although my mindset toward my mental health has shifted, that doesn’t mean the monsters have gone away. They still live in my brain, nested comfortably in their bed of self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-destruction. Though they sleep a little more these days, occasionally filing down their claws, they still speak to me every day. They still tell me to stop eating, stop talking, stop trying, stop caring. And they won’t ever leave.
There won’t ever be a day where I don’t have mental illness.
There are days when I pick up the razor to punish myself instead of the phone to get support. There are days when I lie in bed for hours waiting for my mattress to absorb me into the folds of my sheets instead of packing up my bag and going to class. There are days where I’m so anxious that I throw up in the shower; where I lock myself in the bathroom unable to breathe, the pain in my chest unbearable and my heart beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings; where I look in the mirror and want to smash it to pieces, disgusted with the reflection staring back at me; where my hands shake so badly that I can barely fold them in my lap or hold a pencil or lift a cup to my lips. There are still days where I don’t want live.
What keeps me going, though, is that there are days where I do.
There are days where getting out of bed doesn’t seem like a chore, and looking in the mirror doesn’t feel so unsettling. There are days where I laugh so hard that my stomach aches and I feel on top of the world. There are days that I wish I could bottle up and keep next to me, waiting to be opened up and experienced all over again. There are nights I fall asleep in complete bliss, reveling in the wonders of life and forgetting my worries entirely.
I don’t want to be defined by my mental illness, but I don’t want it to be a part of myself that I have to hide either. I’m made up of so many other things that making just one of them the focal point would really be a disservice to myself. I am worth more than that. I am not perfect, I am not better, but I am getting there. And that’s okay.
This Coping entry comes from the wonderful Sandra Mercer, who actually recently wrote a wonder feature on Dear Hope for the newspaper The Westfield Voice.
Always remember you are not alone.
You are loved.
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