Abbey Marshall | Managing Editor
On my most recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I was enjoying a hot day of leisure splashing around in a refreshingly cold river when I decided it was time for an adventure. Now, I’m not a big thrill-seeker or much of a risk-taker in general, but after watching a group of reckless teenagers repeatedly tumble over a waterfall injury-free, I was ready to do something a little crazy. I wasn’t by any means prepared to topple over a drop off like that, but I was planning to take a ride through the rapids at the bottom of the waterfall. Cautiously sliding off a mossy rock, I was whisked away by the churning water. I swam back to my starting point, laughing as my brother followed my lead. My confidence and sense of bravery soared as I decided to take the plunge again.
The second time was torturous. I got swept away, unprepared and afraid as my head was thrashing around the depths of the river. I opened my eyes in a panic, attempting to find my way to the surface, but instead I only saw a terrifying kaleidoscope of blue hues and bubbles. The rapids consumed me as I lost control of my body and had an overwhelming sense that this would never end.
“This is how I’m going to die,” I thought.
My head popped back up after what felt like ages only to be greeted by my concerned looking brother and my sister with her hand clamped over her mouth. Relief flooded over me as I hurriedly swam back to the big rock where my siblings were standing as they repeatedly asked me if I was okay. Their words became a hodgepodge of “I couldn’t see your head for a long time” and “I was so afraid” and “Don’t do that again”. My parents, seated from afar called out to me with looks of terror plastered on their faces, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Trying to fight back tears of shock and utter dread, I assured them that I was fine, though my entire body was shaking and I felt completely out of control.
That’s what anxiety feels like.
I was diagnosed last summer with obsessive compulsive disorder, severe anxiety, and depression. The words sound foreign on my tongue, so fresh and so terrifying as I rarely speak them aloud, but make perfect sense, like a discovery of myself that I have struggled so long to try to comprehend. The past two years of my life has been riddled with unexplained and volatile panic attacks and a generalized feeling of anxiety at all times, no matter what I’m doing. I knew that something wasn’t right when I would sit in my bedroom late at night shaking and crying uncontrollably over things that I shouldn’t be so worried about. I knew that there was something extremely wrong when I couldn’t drag myself out of bed, feeling so hopeless and empty on the inside. I knew I had problems when I’d restlessly lie beneath the sheets at night for hours on end, anxious thoughts provoking me with every attempt I made to get some rest.
My therapist believes this began when my mother passed away; I suffered from post traumatic stress as a three-year-old. That extreme event carried over into habitual anxious behaviors that strengthened over time, which ultimately lead to my lifelong OCD and issues sleeping. I fixate on perfection with my every action, no matter how small. This past year brought all sorts of social and academic pressure to me and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t handle it. I cracked. My chemical balance changed; I was in a constant state of heightened nerves and mental stress, sporadically spurring on panic attacks, and I felt a sort of sadness, emptiness, and loneliness I’d never experienced before.
Most people would be surprised to hear that I am depressed. Oftentimes, I am complimented on my cheery personality and optimistic view on life. This is why I’m writing this article: to change the stigmas associated with mental disorders.
It took me a long time to write this. Shaky fingers drafted this over and over, unsure of what to say or how to say it. What will people think? Will they think I’m weird or unstable? What am I even trying to accomplish? It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the series Going Off by New York Times writer Diana Spechler that I realized that this was bigger than me. I can use my writing to not only release myself, but bring forth an important, yet touchy subject that is slowly coming to the forefront of current social issues.
The problem becomes that when you hide it, the situation worsens. I know this all too well. When I began to have panic attacks early last year, I kept them hidden from my parents for quite some time. Of course, having the burden of a secret that large only increased my anxious feelings and ultimately ostracized me even further, creating the illusion that I truly was on my own.
I’m here to address those so crippled by what society thinks that they’re too afraid to get the release and closure they need. You are not alone. I am still fooled by those notion every now and then, but I promise it’s not true. If just my saying it isn’t enough to sell you, look at simple statistics. 40 million adults in the United States are affected by an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Also, according to ADAA, “Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder”.
My mind is flustered by the idea that 18 percent of the U.S. population is suffering from such a severe disorder, yet it’s still such an ill-addressed topic. The solution seems simple: get people talking. It’s such a taboo; we know it’s there and we know it’s getting worse but we don’t want to feel uncomfortable so we just won’t talk about it.
One of the inaccurate stigmas behind mental disorders is that if you simply try hard enough, you can make yourself happy. Let me be the first to inform these confused individuals: it doesn’t work that way. I can’t even keep track of how many nights I’ve tried to force a smile upon my face and think about how grand life is. The reality is, the brain is very complex and delicate, leaving plenty of room for the errors of chemical and hormonal imbalances. Serotonin re-uptake can occur too much and too often at an unhealthy level, depleting people with depression of their happiness. The New York Times reported in 2013 that one in 10 Americans are currently taking anti-depressant medication.
As someone who takes anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication in an attempt to calm my nerves and balance my hormones, as someone who attends doctors appointments routinely, as someone who sits on an over-sized leather couch as a psychologist analyzes me regularly, let me tell you that despite my lengthy analysis of mental illness, it can be summed up in two harsh, blatantly honest words: it sucks.
I wish I could say that in the end, everything will be perfect and this is just a bump in the road, but I know firsthand that it feels like more than a bump. It feels like a roadblock. Having anxiety and depression is like standing on the edge of a jagged crevasse, gazing over at what life could be like, but instead you’re trapped for what seems like forever. I’m not going to be one of the people who will tell you to just “get over it and move on”.
My personal account isn’t about the triumph or the resilience of the human spirit. Actually, it’s quite the contrary. I’m trying to say that it’s okay not be perfect. It’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be broken. It’s okay to feel emotions and cry and not smile every second of your life. I want to start a conversation about how people battling a mental disorder are not damaged goods and we shouldn’t have to be ashamed of who we are.
I am exposing my deepest, darkest secret, describing the inner-workings of my brain, and sharing this to spark conversations about the taboos of mental illnesses in today’s society. We need to start changing the way people view psychological disorders in order to move forward and help those suffering.
If you’re feeling caught in the rapids the way I do, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone is battling something. No matter who you are, there is someone that cares about you beyond belief. See 1 Peter 5:7 for details.
“The pain that you’ve been feeling, can’t compare to the joy that’s coming.” ~Romans 8:18
Originally published in The Chronicle on May 13, 2016.