I Suffer From Mental Health Issues
That is probably the hardest thing for someone with mental health issues to say. It was (and still is) extremely hard for me to admit it, especially to myself, but it's true. I have mental health issues.
Those of us who have mental health issues are usually more afraid to open up about our problems than anything else. Sure, those of us with anxiety have a fear of things that other people may find silly or unwarranted, but at the top of that list of fears is usually having someone, whether it be a friend, a coworker, or, worst of all, a BOSS, find out about our disabilities.
The hardest part of dealing with mental health issues, for me at least, is dealing with the stigma
Does this mean I'm damaged? No. Does this mean I'm less of a person? No. Does this mean that you need to walk on eggshells around me? No. Does this mean that you should treat me differently than other people? Absolutely not.
But there is still a stigma around those of us with mental health issues. I have major depression, general anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am also not a veteran, which is a common misconception about people with PTSD. I've just seen and been through some stuff, the details of which aren't important, but if you really want to know about them, then come talk to me at a camp or con. Not ashamed of anything, just don't see a reason to spell them out here.
The hardest part of dealing with mental health issues, for me at least, is dealing with the stigma. Often, I feel that all eyes are on me, especially after I disclose that there is something different about me. For years, we (and I mean WE) have made fun of mental illness using terms like schizo, bipolar, and others to describe and degrade people. When someone is acting upset, we joke about how "they're off their meds again" or how they should "get their meds checked."
Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes
Maybe you have mental health issues, and maybe you don't, but pretend for a second that you do. Think of how it must feel to have your disability made fun of day in and day out as though it were a personality quirk that someone can just snap out of. Would you tell someone with glasses to try seeing harder? Maybe tell them to stare at something and eventually it will become clear? Have you ever told someone with hearing aids that they just need to listen more? What about someone with high blood pressure? Have you ever told someone on medication for hypertension to get off the meds because the only real cure is a bit of fresh air?
As someone with depression, I've been told similar. I've been told I should try being happy or that all I need is some exercise. I've also been told that smiling more will help me be happier.
The Pre-Treatment Days
The first step was admitting I had something wrong with me. Not that I'm damaged, but that part of who I am is depressed.
It's hard to describe life before and after treatment, because it wasn't like a switch turning off or on. It was a gradual change, much like when the lights go down in a theater. I wasn't really sure whether or not it was changing until after it had happened. I do know that before treatment I was definitely a different person.
Before treatment I would go through days in a sort of fog. I would have issues dealing with people and I would have a hard time controlling my anger.
You ever been so mad that you threw a couch? I have.
I would also get anxious over the most mundane things. Everyday things that would be no issue to most people completely flooded my brain with adrenaline and gave me the same response that someone might have if they were being held at gunpoint or chased by a bear.
One time Many times in college I would drive up to the campus prior to class (I went to a community college) and sit in my car trying to work up the nerve to get out and walk into the campus, but sometimes I could find the smallest thing wrong that would be enough for me to put the car in reverse and go home to hide in my basement away from people.
This also strained my personal relationships. I've always had a very hard time letting people in, and I've only had a few really close friends, but even those who I've let in were only given a view from the outside. In my high school days my brain told me over and over that none of my friends liked me and I ended up leaving a friend's house walking a few miles home in the cold without saying a word to anyone there.
I also killed off relationships because m y pre-treatment brain was extremely binary. Everything was black and white with no gray areas. Had a disagreement? Must mean we're breaking up. I should probably cut my losses and move on. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This went on for many years and this thinking also almost ended my current relationship while we were still in the dating phase.
My personal life wasn't the only thing that suffered. Professionally, I was what some experts may call "a mess." My anxiety/anger/depression made an explosive cocktail. In a previous life, as many know, I played a paramedic for a few different ambulance services.
You might say it was a bit of a high-stress environment. Sometimes the anxiety would fuel anger and my insecurities would cause me to lash out at coworkers, and even worse, patients. I have regrets. I cannot change what I have done, but to anyone I may have been a jerk to while wearing a stethoscope, I'm sorry. My severely diminishing capacity for empathy was definitely a contributing factor to my changing of careers and also led to me becoming an industrial medic in the last part of my tenure on the ambulance.
The Worst Case Scenario
My brain always went to the worst case scenario. In high school, this often led to me giving up before trying, because why bother? Professionally, it always had me paranoid and thinking that I was on the verge of being fired. I still have quite a bit of imposter syndrome, but that's for another post.
Since I became a developer, the stress has been much less than when I was responding to emergencies, but it's still there and I'm always afraid I'm one mistake away from getting fired. At a previous job, a boss told me on a Friday that he wanted to schedule a meeting for the following week on the 89th day of my 90 day probationary period. He didn't put it in so many words, but that's where my brain went and my weekend was spent updating my resume and fretting.
It turned out it was just for a check-in and to see how things were going on my end. My worrying was unfounded and I stressed myself all weekend for no reason at all.
Getting Treatment Was Hard
Aside from the obvious difficulties in convincing myself that I needed help, getting help was difficult. I was able to find a therapist and my misconceptions were addressed. I based most of what I knew about therapists on what I had seen on TV and in the movies, and if someone didn't have "doctor" in their title then they weren't worth my time. I was way off. In areas like where I live, it's not uncommon for Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) to work with or under Psychologists or Psychiatrists (there is a difference) and provide counseling.
Step one was complete: I found a therapist and it was recommended that I get on medication. Unfortunately, LCSWs can't prescribe medications and in Indiana, where I live, psychologists also cannot prescribe. I had to find someone to write the script so that I could continue my journey to better health, but like the invincible person I was quickly learning that I was not, I didn't have a primary care physician. I also hadn't had a physical that wasn't a requirement for work in a much longer time than I'm willing to admit.
This is where it got really hairy. I knew what I needed, I was trying my hardest to get on track, but I needed a doctor to help me out. I called around to various clinics and physicians' offices and I was given time frames between 3 and 6 months to be seen. Eventually I settled on a doctor who was recommended by my therapist, but there was still a 4 month wait before I could get into see him and hope that he agreed with the psychologist's assessment of my conditions.
Those were a long 4 months. Therapy helped, but I remain depressed and anxious.
Eventually I was able to see my new doctor and get checked out. He prescribed an SSRI for me along with some other meds for other conditions that were discovered through blood tests (high cholesterol is bad) and my path to treatment was finally paved.
Life After Treatment
Things got better, but they aren't perfect. I'm currently between therapists and lately I've been feeling that my meds aren't working as well as they once did, but I also have a number of new, acute stressors in my life that may make it seem as though they aren't working, but I don't want to find out how well I'd be able to cope if I weren't medicated. I still have many bad days, but not nearly as many as I used to have. Most days I'm able to function, but I do still go to dark places occasionally and get into funks that last for days.
My anxiety is down and I'm able to function in social situations much better than I used to. In fact, I've presented twice in the past year on mental health in tech at a Drupal meetup and TCDrupal in Minneapolis. I'm currently pitching to a few other conferences and waiting to hear back.
My current employer knows about my situation and has been extremely supportive. In fact, three people from this company, including the CEO, were at my first mental health talk in Chicago. It was extremely freeing to have all my cards on the table from day 1 instead of hoping that nobody found out that I see a therapist.
I'm also able to talk candidly about my mental health issues and joke about them without being degrading. I've come to terms with the fact that it's who I am. It's not a quirk or a phase, but a part of me. Since it is a part of me, I've learned to accept it. Instead of denying, I embrace it and treat it. I try to help others on various Slack teams or through OSMI. I try to be a better person.
Wow... That Was a Lot
There's a stigma around those of us with mental illness that leads to many of us not admitting that we have problems or seeing ourselves as less than because we have issues. The stigma makes it difficult to come forward and say "I have a problem" because we see this particular form of disease as something that we should be able to just wish away. The stigma pushes people to self-medicate or self-harm instead of seeking any kind of treatment. The stigma takes many forms, from joking about being "so OCD" because you like to be organized to calling someone who is angry bipolar. The stigma minimizes the suffering of people dealing with mental health issues to the point that we often times think that we're more of a burden.
The stigma is not stronger than us. The stigma can be defeated. The stigma can fuck off.