There's quite a large stigma around the idea of mental health, people don't like to talk about it because it's an uncomfortable subject. It's something that's seen as a weakness, a fatal flaw in the design of a human being. When it gets to the point of debilitation, people like to whip around and say:
"Everyone has anxiety."
"Everyone gets depressed sometimes."
And yes! That's so true! Everyone gets anxious every once in a while and everyone experiences depressive episodes, but those things are temporary. As the stressor is dealt with, the feeling of discomfort fades away and is forgotten later on, as if it never existed in the first place. I'm sure you can think of a time you were super anxious for a test or maybe depressed because you didn't get a callback for that job, but those feelings faded eventually and you got over it.
Imagine if you couldn't get over it though?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to highlight what so many people think is uncomfortable. A time to break the stigma that people have about mental health. A time to expand the resources we have for those who experience issues with their mental health.
I'm someone who is very open about my struggle with my mental health because when I was first dealing with it no one was there to talk about it. I felt so alone because no one I knew shared the things I struggled with, no one seemed to feel the same way that I felt. I want to be a voice to tell people struggling with their mental health that you're not alone. There are people out there who experience what you feel and it's okay.
When I was in 8th grade, I experienced my first panic attack. I hate using the word panic attack because people overuse it so frequently. People try to say they had a panic attack when they got a little too stressed and had a breakdown. People like to try to say that they had a panic attack when any little thing happens and they lose a bit of self-composure. That isn't a panic attack.
Every person's panic attack is different but for me, a panic attack was tunnel vision. The breath was suddenly gone from my lungs as my world came to a sudden halt. I couldn't see, my vision going blurry and hazy. I couldn't breathe, choking on my own attempt to get air into my lungs. My world was closing in on me inch by inch. I could feel myself slipping from reality. I was going to die. At that moment I felt like I was going to die. I couldn't hear anything but ringing in my ears as I collapsed onto the floor and curled into a ball, terrified for my life because I genuinely felt like I was going to die every single time I had a panic attack.
After the first episode, I became extremely hypersensitive to loud noises and sudden movements. If someone shut a door a little too loud or if someone waved their hands in front of my face a little too quickly, I would break. I'd have panic attacks in the middle of class. I can vividly recall in my social studies class crawling under a table and having a panic attack because the room was so loud. I remember rocking myself back and forth, tears streaming down my face as I tried to regain myself, tried to tell myself that I wasn't dying.
People thought it was funny. People thought that making me cry, making me spiral into fear was the most hilarious thing in the world. People would purposefully yell at me, people would purposefully slam the door when they went to the bathroom because they knew it would terrify me.
I had permission to leave my classes and walk around the hallways if I felt an episode coming on, but most of the time the trigger set in too quickly for me to get away. I went to school every day in fear that I was going to die. I considered doing online school instead of public high school because my anxiety and panic disorder were so debilitating to me. I was afraid to go outside, I was afraid of the way people looked at me.
I remember a teacher of mine didn't know about my permission to walk out of classes. He yelled at me to stay, told me I couldn't leave. I had to run to the bathroom and crumble to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably until a friend found me and got a teacher.
That was just middle school.
Freshman year of high school it got worse. I thought it would be a fresh start, a place to get out of the dark hallways and small classrooms. I thought it would be better. But, I didn't have the same protections as I did in middle school, I couldn't leave. I had to tell all of my teachers upfront that I had routine panic attacks. I had special people in each class to walk me out and stay with me in the hallway when the episodes happened.
Even though I loved high school, I loved the new adventures I was still made fun of, I was teased and judged for something that I couldn't help. People called me sensitive and I just begged them to even consider the things I went through.
I went to therapy. I was diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder and panic disorder. I finally had a name. I finally had someone tell me that the things I experienced we're unnatural. I'd experienced these feelings for more than a year before someone could finally explain things to me.
I refused medication, already struggling with undiagnosed mild depression, fearing that it would make it worse. I was set to deal with things on my own.
The panic attacks didn't stop with therapy. I remember gathering my instrument for my first-period band class. I was in our instrument storage room, stopping as the pledge came on the announcements. Everything was fine until a boy, unknowing of my problems, screamed at the top of his lungs right behind me, startling me. It was almost as if I felt the anxiety come over my body like a cold flash. I could feel the immediate shock of my body, the instant tears that pooled from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Had it not been for a friend and a teacher who helped me walk outside of the classroom, I would have collapsed right there on the floor. I crumpled into a ball on the floor outside, unable to breathe, unable to move or think of anything besides "I'm dying. I'm dying. This is how I'm going to die. I'm going to die."
When I look back on that memory, I don't look back on it as if I'm sitting in my own shoes in a visual sense. I look at myself from a third person view, I see myself hugging my knees, my knuckles white from clenching my body so hard. I see tears unable to stop flowing from my face. I see someone with their hand on my shoulder, kneeling down in front of me trying to break me out from madness I was enclosed in. I see my teacher staring down at me with worry in her eyes, unsure of what to do at all. At the time, I didn't see those things at all. All I saw was black.
Physically, though, when I look back at that memory, I feel everything. I feel a clenching in my chest like I'm starting to struggle with breathing. I feel shaky. I feel nervous, I immediately start to sweat. It's almost like I'm going through the same type of panic just thinking about it. Just merely thinking about one of the more worse panic attacks I've had can send me down that path, and that's a terrifying thought.
One day my panic attacks stopped happening. I, to this day, have no clue what happened, what changed. I didn't stop eating something, I continued with the same hobbies, nothing changed in my life. It's the weirdest thing that ever happened to me, and since then I haven't had a single panic attack.
Does that mean my mental health bill has been cleared? Does that mean I'm cured? That everything is magically okay?
No. Although people like to think it does.
Just because you're not showing any outside symptoms that would indicate that you're struggling with mental health doesn't mean you're fine. Mental health is a mental game. We're constantly in our own heads fighting a battle that no one ever sees, no one hears about it because we're scared or we get the "all you talk about is your anxiety, we get it" card.
My mental health is like a roller coaster. There are times where everything is fine and everything is okay. There are times when I feel like everything is going right and there's no way anything could go wrong until the coaster reaches the top of the hill and falls at 100 miles per hour. Everything that I've tried to put in place disappears before my eyes. All the hard work I've done to help myself and to fix myself gets jumbled out of order and I turn into a mess. Then, the coaster slows and I can figure things out again, and the cycle repeats and repeats and repeats.
The time from one fall to another is unknown, sometimes there are loops that come in the way and I have to deal with those. Sometimes it's a day by day process, and you know what? That's okay.
My mental state had quite the fall with the beginning of my senior year of high school. The tree falling on my house caused me to feel insecure, unsafe, the constant nagging and worry that something was going to happen to me looming at every corner. Treatment from others got worse and I started developing PTSD-like symptoms from prolonged trauma that I didn't even realize was that bad until it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I carry them on my back every day, my anxiety disorder and my PTSD clinging to me, trying to steer me in one direction or another. Some days it's hard to push them away and go on my own path, but with my growing and understanding of myself, I have an easier time doing so.
There was a point in time where it got so bad I reached out to the CAPs center. I'd lost absolute fate in myself. I was struggling to see a brighter point, the tunnel I was in surrounded me in darkness. I can vividly remember crying as I typed out my information onto the form. I talked about how worthless I felt, how unintelligent I was, how I was a failure and the past I had experienced were things that I could never overcome. I was lost in the world around me, my first semester of college was a lot harder than I had expected. I was a failure to myself and I could see myself falling down a path I didn't want to be on.
Therapy this time around absolutely saved me. I gained so much from the sessions that I had, I learned so much more about myself and the person who I was struggling to be. I learned how to take my past, the past where I had blamed so many things on myself, and rearrange it. I learned to take out the pieces and clean them off, then place them back. It wasn't about forgetting all of the nightmares, it was about remembering that I wasn't the evil. I wasn't in the wrong for trying to protect myself from the people that hurt me the most.
I'm so incredibly thankful to the CAPs center for helping me.
My sessions just ended and although that time is over, I've grown a lot. I've changed my method of thinking and I've seen real results. I've seen myself be happier, more confident, and less wary about my past. Yes, horrible things happened to me but I've changed my perspective and changed my viewpoint. No, I don't have to forget that they happened, I can still be angry or sad at the things that were said and done to me but I can finally stop blaming myself. It's not my fault that people scared me due to my panic disorder. It's not my fault that I have problems with my mental health.
It's not my fault.
There are days where my mental health plummets. I feel alone, worthless, unsure of every step that I take. I struggle with coping with reality, I struggled with seeing myself as a person. I struggled with taking the blame off of myself for things people had done to me, but I have the tools and the methods in order for me to get back on my feet. I have the ability to pull myself away from the person I don't want to become and that's something that's so incredibly powerful.
Yes, I have mental health problems, I'll be the first to admit that, but in no way shape or form does that take away from the person I am. Being mentally ill isn't a weakness, it's given me the compassion to work with others who face the same struggles that I do, it's given me the ability to think in ways that other people don't tend to see. I have immense respect for those who struggle with mental health problems because I understand their struggles, even though we may not share the same story or the same issues, we know what it's like to feel alone in a world full of people.
May is my month. May is the month for Mental Health Awareness and I want to make it clear that yes I have mental illness and mental health issues but that doesn't mean I'm any different. I don't want special treatment, I don't want you to treat me like a child. I want you to recognize that I have these problems and I'm constantly working on them. I constantly struggle behind the scenes in order to keep a regular appearance.
Those who have mental health problems are so incredibly strong. They've faced things that the normal person can't even fathom, and sometimes they face them on a daily basis. Their lows are so much lower than the lows you've ever had, but when they finally get back up it's like the sun comes up from over the horizon and it feels like heaven on earth.
Having mental health problems isn't something to be ashamed of. You're so strong. You're so incredibly strong. Even on the hard days, even on the days where nothing seems worth it, your fight isn't over.
I hope that I can be the messenger, to inform people about mental health. I want to destroy the stigma that people with mental health problems are just begging for attention. I want to destroy the stigma that going to therapy is a sign of weakness. I want to destroy the stigma around mental health and the ones who experience it because we're just like normal human beings.
We're just like you, we just have a little extra that we carry with us on our journey, and sometimes that weight slows us down but we can keep fighting. We can adjust to carry the weight and we will because people with mental health problems deserve the same treatment, the same thrills of life and the same experience as someone without them.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 1-800-273-8255