*Warning* This post is not as polished because it is an emotional one for me.
This week has been an emotional rollercoaster for me. Today I had to say goodbye to people I have worked with for almost 7 years. I had to explain to crying children that I would not be back next year and that, because I am their counselor which is not the same thing as being their friend, I probably wouldn’t see them again. Ever. I’ve had to walk away from schools and neighborhoods that I have learned like the back of my hand, knowing that I will probably won’t have another excuse to go back there again. Tomorrow is my last day at the only job I have ever known as an adult. It is incredibly bittersweet.
While I have been telling myself for years that I wanted a new job, and counting down the days until I can start at the hospital, I never dreamed this week would be so difficult. I am ready to move on, I desperately need a change, but leaving the people I care about behind while I move forward is so hard. I don’t think you really realize the lives you touch until it’s time to go.
As if this wasn’t bad enough I have been struggling with feeling anxious in the mornings again. Nothing super serious, but enough to be concerning to me. Anxiety and I go way back and I know myself well enough at this point to know that my inability to stay asleep and racing heart in the wee hours before my alarm goes off can lead to an even bigger problem of debilitating panic attacks. I know that the adrenaline that courses through my body when I am startled awake by every tiny little noise in the room is a blade’s edge away from becoming the thing I fear the most, which is ironically the fear of nothing and everything all at the same time. I’m afraid that I am going to wake up tomorrow and I won’t be able to get out of bed because the panic will be so great that I literally won’t be able to breathe. I’m afraid that Mike will find me once more puddled on the bathroom floor sobbing because I just can’t bring myself to leave the safety of my home.
In just four days I start a new job where I have SIGNIFICANTLY less holidays, vacation, and sick time and that scares the shit out of me. At least when things got to be too much at my old job I knew it would be relatively easy to call in and take a personal day because my boss understood my condition and knew that sometimes things were just too much for me. I took consolation in the fact that I had five weeks of vacation a year and a generous amount of holiday time. Moving to a hospital where I only get 5 paid holidays a year is going to be a huge adjustment.
I dread the morning when I have my first panic attack after starting this new job. And while I am lucky that this only seems to happen 2-3 times a year now, when it happens it tends to be really bad and puts me out of commission for days. I’m already afraid I might lose the job I haven’t even started yet because of it. This is what anxiety does. You obsess over all the possible things that could go wrong, but haven’t yet, and I do mean OBSESS.
I am writing about this because I want the rest of the world to see the real face of mental illness. To many people I am a seemingly normal 20 something who seems (at least on the outside) to have her shit together, but what people don’t see are all the days I come home and fall directly into bed exhausted because I have already used every ounce of energy I had just trying to be an adult that day. I want everyone else to know how much guilt and shame is attached to this because, for me and other people with mental illness, the inability to function is not a choice.
The worst thing someone could ever say to me is “Why don’t you just be happy,” or “Stop worrying so much,” or “You just need to get over it.” I would LOVE to do any one of these things if I could, believe me. I wish with all my heart that I could. I can’t even tell you the hundreds of thousands of times I have told Mike and loved ones through tears that I just wish I could be normal like everyone else. But I am not like everyone else because my brain fundamentally works differently. People who are mentally ill suffer from chemical imbalances in their brain through no fault of their own. I would be completely insane for me to tell my friend who has a blood clotting disorder- “Maybe you should just make your blood stop clotting so easily,” yet people all the time in the news and on the internet blame people who are depressed or anxious for the conditions they can’t control. It’s almost like people think if we just pull our selves up further by our bootstraps that our brains will balance out and we won’t have panic attacks or episodes of depression anymore. THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
I used to demonize my brain and my body for betraying me. I used to hate myself for suffering from anxiety. In recent years, however, I am realizing that my body, in a very twisted sort of way, is trying to be the proverbial helicopter parent in my life. It is constantly buzzing around trying to alert me to every possible danger. It is AWESOME at picking up subtle clues in my environment. I am super aware of myself and everyone else all the time, which I think is what personally makes me a good counselor. I pick up on cues that most people don’t even realize they are giving out because my brain is conditioned to think that everything is a threat. It used to drive me bonkers how clueless other people were in public places until I realized that they aren’t aware that I am behind them because their brain (unlike mine) isn’t scanning the area for every single creepy looking guy and then formulating an exit strategy and/or how I could make a makeshift weapon should shit get crazy. My brain is just trying really hard to keep me safe and doesn’t realize that it’s smothering me in the process.
I wish I could say that I had a reliable way of managing the anxiety, but that isn’t always the case. My body is very sensitive to medication and I have a hard time finding a drug or a dose that really works for me. I have been in counseling and I use my own education as a counselor to help when I can. I try and exercise and eat right and do all the right things, but there are still days like today when I just cry and I have no idea why I am sad or scared. I just am.
I’m sharing this with you because I want you to know that if someone you love suffers from depression or anxiety they probably feel broken too. It is because I feel like I am damaged goods that I sometimes push away the people I care about to save them from having to deal with me, when I am-to quote a line from Alanis Morissette- too exhausting to be loved. Your loved one might try to do this, and I know that trying to help someone who is depressed or anxious isn’t easy, but if you love them then you can’t allow them to shut you out. Instead, one of the best things you can say is “I may not understand why you feel like this right now, but I can tell that it is really upsetting you and I’m really sorry about that. How can I help?” They might not have an answer, in fact, if they are in the middle of these desperate feelings they probably won’t. Just letting them know that you are there will mean the world of difference to them. I promise.
I really don’t know how to end this post because in all truthfulness mental illness doesn’t end. It’s not something you can be “cured” of. It can be managed, but it will always be there lurking and waiting for the day that I think I am better enough that I go off my meds and it comes roaring back to the surface. I am probably always going to be dependent on medication to make me feel even a semblance of normal and, as much as at that sucks, I am slowly coming to terms with that. What I do know is that it gets better. Even on the hard days there is laughter. Life goes on and this is a good thing because life is beautiful and definitely worth living. I know there are people out there who do not feel this way and my hope is that you reach out to them with love and compassion because at the end of the day everyone is fighting their own battle whether or not you or I can see it.