Confounded Anxiety

Please note that this is my personal story about dealing with mental health issues. All opinions are my own and unique to my story. Everyone and every situation is unique; as such treatment options vary and one should not be considered superior to the other in any way. Help is help. Help is good.

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Off and on throughout my life I’ve dealt with depression. It came and went and came again depending on the circumstances of my life. Once in a while I would get anxious, but it was situation-dependent – a big test, a presentation, a difficult conversation, etc.  It was “normal.”

In law school, I began having panic attacks. These were stress-induced and given my life circumstances at the time, considered, if not normal, then not surprising. It was the first time I ever received medication treatment for my depression, and it was such a relief! I had resisted drug therapy for so long due to the social and familial stigma associated with such treatment. For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that no one needed to know – simple as that. It was one of the best decisions I made during that time period in my life.

After graduation, I moved out to Arizona and re-booted my life. The change of scenery seemed to be exactly what I needed and for several years I was fine, “normal” in my ups and downs. Then, as seems to happen, a series of unfortunate events occurred and I found myself back at the doctor’s office. Only this time it wasn’t only for depression. Anxiety had crept into my daily life like a thief, stealing all joy and hope. I could counter any positive thought with ten “what-ifs” or “buts.” In an effort to hide my suffering and to spare others my negativity, I also hid my thoughts. I would smile as friends tried to put a positive spin on a situation. I’d even go so far as to agree, to say the words they needed to hear to think I was alright. Every time I did this I robbed myself of comfort and my friends of the truth – I became a thief in my own right and to my own detriment.

By the time I sought professional help, I was having anxiety attacks. I find them to be subtly different from panic attacks, mainly in that I could see the former building while the latter generally took me by surprise. The same chest-crushing, end-of-the-world feelings were present for both.

I returned to my anti-depressants as if reuniting an old friend. The effect was profound and comforting. I discussed several options with my doctor for treating my anxiety and after much trial and error we finally determined an as-needed prescription would be my best option. The side effects of anti-anxiety medication can be overwhelming; in my case most drugs I tried were worse than dealing with the anxiety itself. Reading about the different options was discouraging to say the least – most anti-anxiety drugs also seemed to double as treatment for other illnesses;  few seemed made for the express purpose of treating anxiety.

Around this same time, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Doctors still don’t understand what causes fibromyalgia, but the consensus seems to think it’s normally triggered by a severe illness, a physical trauma (car accident, etc.), or prolonged exposure to severe stress. I fell solidly into the third category. My experience with FM is for another post, but I will say that the anger I felt about it all wasn’t helpful. I couldn’t help but think it was my own fault for landing myself in all of this – the choices I made led to these consequences. There was no one else to blame, so I took it all upon myself. Luckily, I was already seeking treatment for depression when this occurred or I shudder to think what might have happened.

I bring up fibromyalgia because it slots in so snugly with my mental health issues – does depression and anxiety cause FM or does FM cause depression and anxiety? It’s very much a chicken/egg sort of thing, which can make treatment tricky. The drugs for FM weren’t much better than the anti-anxiety options (in my opinion), so I decided to look into holistic options. Fortunately, I had a doctor who was open to that and helped me work through the various options. We finally settled on a holistic treatment plan that was best for me with very satisfactory results. The added benefit is that the treatment options selected also helped greatly with my anxiety – talk about a win/win!

It’s been decided that I will likely stay on my current anti-depressant indefinitely (or so long as it continues working). It treats the depression effectively and also seems to assist with some of the FM symptoms. Unfortunately, it can also cause anxiety to worsen. To combat that I do have an as-needed option to use in those situations where necessary. Otherwise, I try to take a very holistic approach to treatment. Most days this works really well, other days it doesn’t seem to help at all. You win some, you lose some.

What mostly frustrates me these days is the timing of it all – if I’m really excited about something such as an event or a trip, I can almost guarantee anxiety will swoop in to steal at least some of the joy. If it’s a concert, the crowds bother me. If it’s travel, it might be turbulence or a creepy person following me or lost luggage, etc. (basically all the parts of travel that make it an adventure). Most of the time I can foresee this and I try to maintain a mental grip. I have to work a little harder to find joy in the activity, but I do. I refuse to let the thief get everything. But again, I’m not always successful; sometimes anxiety wins. Dealing with that disappointment, learning not to blame myself when this happens, these are my new challenges. I know that I have other options to treat the anxiety. Treating myself with grace and kindness, however, is something I must learn to do for myself. There is no drug for self-love.

I share my story today in hopes that it might somehow benefit others. The attitudes about mental illness are a huge part of the problem and need to change. I can no more control my depression or anxiety than I could a cold or flu. I can, however, seek medical attention to help just the same. If we can accept treatment for one without stigma, then why not the other?

In the last year or so I’ve really tried to open up and share my experiences with my friends. It was so incredibly uncomfortable at first, but now it’s just another part of our conversation. I didn’t let it become a big deal and after a while, my friends realized it didn’t need to be. It’s opened up another level of conversation to us – it allows both sides the freedom to discuss parts of our life that we might otherwise keep hidden. It’s a safe space between us, which I have found to be invaluable, particularly on the bad days. I would like this blog to likewise be a safe space – for me to include my struggles in the conversation, but also for anyone else who might need to share in the comfort of knowing they are not alone.

You are not alone.

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World Mental Health Day

Today, October 10th, is World Mental Health Day sponsored by the World Federation for Mental Health. Apparently this is actually an annual event, but I’ve only been tuned into it this year. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the day and I have to say that I’m relieved and thrilled that others are catching on to this cause.

As someone who has personal experience with anxiety and depression, I empathize with the difficulties people face on a daily basis when dealing with these and other mental disorders. I’m sad to admit how little I discuss or share my own personal experience for fear of judgment. I am afraid that people will think I’m weak or broken and thus treat me differently (a fear unfortunately based in experience). But seeing how many of the recent tragedies in the US have been a/n in/direct result of mental illness, it inspires me to talk about it more. I’m hopeful that I’ll reach a point where I feel comfortable writing about it as well. We as a society have to move past the stigmas and encourage others to get the help they may need. There’s a special airing on MTV tomorrow (yes, I know it’s MTV but they have some decent documentaries) about depression in teens. Given how many stories there have been in the news about young adults committing suicide or hurting themselves, I don’t know that there can be enough outreach on these topics.

When I was reading more about World Mental Health Day I stumbled upon an article discussing the need for a mental health focus when dealing with refugees. It’s so easy to overlook the mental and emotional impact that a major crisis can have on individuals when there are more immediate needs – food, clothing, shelter – that must be attended. I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to be in their position on any level, but I send them all the good thoughts and positive energy that I can.

Should anyone feel so inclined there are multiple charitable options available both domestically and internationally (it just takes a few minutes with Google). But personally I think, like so many things in life, the greatest impact is made on the smallest level. If you feel comfortable sharing your story with someone that you feel may be experiencing something similar – try it (note the bold, italics on the word comfortable). If someone confides in you about their own struggles, try to keep an open mind. Depression, bipolar, whatever the case may be, are difficult to live with, but a little understanding goes a long way most days. And if you personally feel that you may be suffering from a mental disorder, make a call – or twenty if necessary – to get checked out. Luckily these days there are so many different treatment options. Don’t be afraid of doing what you need to do to live this life and to be happy. Admitting there is or may be a problem isn’t weak, it’s one of the strongest things you can do.

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Other helpful links:

Mental Health America
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

MentalHealth.gov
http://www.mentalhealth.gov/