May Good Mental Health Be With You
For only slightly longer than I’ve known S, I’ve also known our “mutual friends” anxiety and depression.
While many people unfortunately suffer from mental illness from birth or childhood, several also end up the victims of adult-onset issues. And while some may believe it is, mental illness isn’t always hereditary, and if it is genetic it might not be lifelong.
In fact, it’s highly possible that someone who has underlying genetic markers may not even exhibit or experience symptoms until their early to mid-20s. In my case, my anxiety emerged right around the time my parents got divorced. Although I didn’t know it then, my 12-year-old mind and body were undergoing frequent and seemingly never-ending panic attacks. It wasn’t until I finally sought counseling in college that I could put a name to the face that had haunted me for so long.
I fall into that latter group of the adult-onset afflicted, and both S and I are at points in our lives where we have suffered for several years with these diseases, but also learned a lot about how not to let them rule our lives. Because of that, we thought it only appropriate to blog about our coping mechanisms, triggers and any helpful and/or entertaining mental health-related anecdotes for May: Mental Health Awareness Month.
Winging it: my eyeliner, my life
Something S and I hear quite often from everyone from family to new acquaintances is “You have anxiety?” usually followed by “But you seem so [insert positive adjective here].”
Anxiety and brilliance aren’t mutually exclusive, folks.
As a woman long ago dubbed the “mom friend,” people for years have assumed because of my no-bullshit attitude, lack of filter and the fact that I’ve made it living as a journalist without ending up homeless (so far), that I’ve got my shit together. Thus, they confuse my intimate knowledge of the workings of an Excel budget spreadsheet with a #blessed rather the more apt #hotmess lifestyle.
S and I joke all the time that we’re simply highly functioning basketcases.
As someone who’s been suicidal and suffers from depression, it seems odd, but I’ve always been able to help others even when I can’t necessarily help myself. In the first four months or so that I lived in Portland I was overwhelmed. I felt like I was being attacked by new pressures and expectations (a new job, living with my partner for the first time, bad weather, which made driving dangerous, substantial financial and emotional responsibilities) and at some points I resorted to attempting to end everything just to get the feeling of impending failure and inadequacy to stop.
You can’t fail at tasks you aren’t alive to be responsible for, right? Or at least that’s how my — and others’ — depressed and anxious brains tend to work.
In the past, it’s been the plight of others that’s kept me from actually taking my own life.
“I can’t kill myself today, my friend needs baked goods for finals week.”
Fortunately, I haven’t hit that low in almost three years. And over the past year I’ve found a handful of ways to stave off anxiety and depression or soften the blow of an inevitable panic attack.
Ironically, when S and I were in college, we both had an almost debilitating fear of driving to the store. Mine was founded in the idea that if I got into my truck I’d crash into something from multiple bad past experiences. Hers was because the thought of forced socialization in the checkout line made her physically ill. Same action. Different “rationalizations.”
Because mental illness is subjective.
For that very reason, S and I have our own different coping mechanisms. Mine include baking, budgeting and even making my bathtub into a temporary office, in which I sometimes even hand write these blog posts.
Baking gets me out of my head a bit, and doing something measured and physical — something difficult to overthink since you literally have step-by-step directions. Plus it’s usually baking for someone else’s benefit. Budgeting actualizes a future for me. If I’m planning ahead financially, or even just socially, it’s a pretty good sign I’m not gonna try to go anywhere.
One coping mechanism S has used, and many others still do, is medication.
Lexapro is a no-go
For anyone reading who hasn’t experienced a panic attack or lived with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, it’s akin to the feeling you get on a rollercoaster. You can feel something just a little off as you start to climb the track and the tension begins (i.e. your trigger) before you reach the top of the track and realize that what comes next is either an uncertain, terrifying death drop, or you suddenly remember how much you hated doing the loop-da-loop last time.
The two seconds before you plummet down the track (and inevitably vomit during your panic) is when you have to bust out those coping mechanisms. Your mind engages fight or flight (warranted or otherwise) and signals to your body that something catastrophic is coming. With the right resources, tools, counseling, or medication you can be pretty well equipped to batten the hatches and weather the storm.
Like B, I also use baking and organizing to manage my stress. However, to the probable dismay of many friends and family members, my anxiety more commonly manifests as near-compulsive cleaning. I can’t focus until everything is in its spot, Cloroxed, lint-rolled, straight, and de-cluttered. It’s my mind’s way of protecting me from having too much time to think and reliving shitty times gone by.
Anything to outwork, outwit, or outlast the looming shadow of anxiety I tried. I’d done the circular breathing and meditating, attended session after session of therapy, journaled until my pen ran out of ink, kneaded my weight in bread dough, sweated it out at the gym, danced it off ‘til dawn, Netflix binged it out of mind, crammed my schedule full of classes, books, and papers, and still couldn’t win the war.
It wasn’t until I hit my lowest low during the height of my unemployment in late 2017 that I finally bit the bullet and admitted to my doctor that I was utterly losing the fight with my mental illness. Something about having that diagnosis etched forever in my medical records was so daunting and final. A commitment I couldn’t escape from, even if the road ahead was terrible.
My doctor reviewed my symptoms and coping strategies to see what type of medicine would help balance me out. She had a hefty task considering my entire life was filled with listlessness, irritability, hopeless sadness, intense self-consciousness, fear of leaving the house, feelings of worthlessness, and panic attacks. My doctor prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) called Lexapro to treat my anxiety and burgeoning depression.
Over the course of nine months I took Lexapro and started on an entirely new rollercoaster ride.
Because the drug’s main goal is to stabilize chemical signals that trigger the fight-or-flight response by promoting feelings of tranquility, it means that patients can spend the first few weeks of their trial dosage in a deep, deep fog. I slept soundly and comfortably without a care in the world for the first time in months. If you could leave aside the perpetual grogginess, I actually felt rested and at peace.
Another bonus was that I wasn’t crying at the drop of a hat, burning up with rage, or wallowing in that tired defeatist attitude. Lexapro truly pulled me from the depths and returned me to the life I am supposed to live.
After starting the medicine I was able to do things that previously triggered an attack. I shopped alone, watched movies alone, and even ate dinner at a restaurant alone. I celebrated these milestones as I began being able to nail job interviews and start training for the wonderful job I have now.
As the months went by, my time with Lexapro was coming to an end.
Some patients are able to successfully stay on SSRIs for extended periods of time. Hell, my doctor said people sometimes stay on them for life. Other patients, like me, are only meant to use medication as a stepping stone until the environmental triggers that set off your illness have been handled.
After nine blissful months I began to have horrible side-effects including constant dizziness, feeling faint, arm pain and tingling, shortness of breath, and general weakness. I was immediately given a taper to slowly cessate from Lexapro under supervision after meeting with my doctor.
When I say the withdrawals were horrible, you can know I genuinely mean it. With a high pain threshold and years of feeling mentally and physically ill under my belt, I am not one to sweat simply being uncomfortable. The emotional shitshow, never-ending flu-like symptoms, hot flashes, and micro attention span that colored my day-to-day life was something I hope to never experience again.
All things considered, Lexapro still helped me when I needed it most. I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t sought help and at least tried medication. If you ever feel that you have reached the end of the line with your existing coping mechanisms and tools, reach out to a medical professional to safely explore the other options available to you.
One of us
Something I’d almost constitute as a coping mechanism, and probably the best one I’ve found to date, is simply finding people who “get it.” Surrounding yourself with individuals who understand that sometimes you’re not okay, and that that’s okay can be especially helpful, though the downside is they often are similarly afflicted.
Having at least one other person in your inner circle who can relate to your mental health struggles can make a huge difference in how you think about yourself, your disease, and life in general. Although we (as Millennials) often get a lot of flack for posting dark memes and supposedly “popularizing” mental illness, I’m glad that we (and Gen Z) have created a safe space for people to express their emotions and celebrate their successes in battle.
It’s comforting to know that for every weird idiosyncrasy I have as a result of anxiety, someone else exists on the same level. The open dialogue between those suffering with mental illness can provide comfort and encouragement to people seeking help at any stage in their diagnosis, and more importantly can even be the difference between life and death.
I’m fortunate enough to have a supportive family and close inner circle who can relate to my experiences and care about my well-being. Without the compassion, patience, and encouragement I received over the last few years, I am not sure I would have achieved or survived all that I have.
In the time S and I have been friends, we’ve learned each other’s tells. We know what phrases and questions warrant an immediate phone call over a text back. We also rarely fight because we understand the differences in our types of anxiety and can usually talk things through without incident.
Even though my mother and I are freakishly close, S understands me possibly better than anyone else in my life when it comes to issues of mental health, pizza toppings and British comedy. Despite the fact that my anxiety tells me people hate me while hers makes her hate being around people, we have an understanding and, therefore, a bond (a blonde bond) that can seemingly outlast a lot. For that I am eternally grateful.
Thank you to anyone who has ever sent that follow-up text, made the midnight call, drove to the emergency room, stayed the night, dropped their loved one off at counseling, visited them in rehab, or dialed the National Suicide Prevention Line. You are loved. You are worthy. You are making a difference.
National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255