It’s not just in your head

Darkness

It’s time to be very real.

I have anxiety and depression. I’ve struggled for as long as I can remember, but no one really offered me help until I was in college – and then it was a low dose of anxiety medication from my PCP.

I grew up in a family that swept everything under the rug. People whispered that my grandmother had had a “mental breakdown” as being the reason she and my grandfather left good civil service jobs in Ohio to buy a farm in rural Tennessee. (She hated it. She hated the small town, the farm, the isolation, and I think she hated the repression.) She turned to religion.

My mother seems to have inherited similar issues with her mental health, but we don’t discuss it. We don’t discuss much, especially if it’s problematic. My family would rather suffer than admit that there is something wrong, and we sure as hell don’t go telling everyone that things aren’t going exactly right.

I remember having anxiety in elementary school. My stomach would cramp before tests. I hated talking in front of my class. I always felt like I was letting someone down. I was labeled “shy” and “gifted.” I didn’t feel like I fit in with my peers. I wanted to quit school in fifth grade. I would disassemble mechanic pencils and use the metal pieces to scratch my wrists in the middle of class. I wanted to make them bleed.

No one noticed.

My grandmother was convinced I was going to be inhabited by a demon. She kept giving me Christian books about demon possession and how to avoid it. (When I started carrying keys so I could stay home alone after school, my grandfather said my pewter Classic Winnie the Pooh key chain looked like a demon.) I was freaked out by all of this, but what do you say? Who do you tell that your grandparents want you to “be a good Christian”? That doesn’t sound scary. No one in a rural, conservative community thinks any of that is weird.

I was just “emotional.” When my grandmother and favorite great-aunt died within a few months of each other, I remember lying on my bedroom floor one night crying. I felt empty. My mother told me to stop being ridiculous because crying wouldn’t do anything.

Suck it up.

I got put on medicine for IBS because my stomach was always a mess, but no one ever mentioned mental health. No one ever asked how I was doing emotionally. Emotions didn’t count. If you weren’t having a heart attack or bleeding, suck it up. Everyone has stress. Everyone hates school. Everyone worries. You’re not unique. Just keep making straight A’s.

When my “friends” left a dead skunk – A. F—ING. DEAD. SKUNK!!!! – on my doorstep before an Academic Decathlon meet, “oh, they’re just jealous.” Just shovel the skunk up and throw it into the woods.

Laugh it off. Smile. Never let anyone know you’re dying inside.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote about suicide and depression. I never told anyone I was hurting, but I was poring my heart out, even though I didn’t realize it was about me. I was so detached my fiction was more real than I knew.

In college, I hit rock bottom. I’d been invited to a party. All my friends had left without me, so I was going to have to drive by myself. I spent the whole trip, imagining running my car off the road. I wanted to die, but I didn’t have the guts to wreck my car because what if it didn’t work? At the party, I never said a word about my feelings to my friends, but they made me feel loved, and I went back to my dorm that night without anymore thoughts of hurting myself. I don’t think I ever told my BFF about that drive to the party until well after we’d graduated.

I can’t remember when or why I started taking a mild anxiety medication. I messed around with my dosage. I’d take too much. Skip days. Finally, I gave up. It didn’t seem to do anything. I didn’t ask for anything else to help with my anxiety until I was in grad school with a thesis director who had abdicated our department, an application to the Ph.D program that had been conveniently “lost,” and a fiance who suddenly quit speaking to me a month before our wedding.

It took several tries of different meds to find something that worked – something that didn’t leave me feeling like I was vibrating out of my skin. I finally found a medication that worked. I dropped out of grad school with all my coursework finished and about 75-90% of two complete theses. I got married (he was in Germany and depressed over his best friend’s death, which seemed to explain why he went on complete communication blackout), and he deployed to Iraq less than a month after our wedding.

While my husband was deployed I started seeing a counselor. It was awesome, but some days when I had appointments, I was too depressed to get out of bed. I missed them, forgot to call, and eventually I quit going. I tried to talk to my mother, but her answer was, “you knew what you were getting into when you married a military guy.”

You’re the only one who can make you happy or sad. It’s a choice.

I yelled at her from the fire escape above my favorite coffee shop. I’m sure I seemed crazy and out of control.

I was out of control. I couldn’t control my brain. It was running away without me.

I went off my meds again. I was depressed. I stayed up all night into the early mornings. I’d go outside at sunrise and prune the bushes in front of my house, and then I’d crash until 2 or 3 p.m. I’d come back to the little down that made my grandmother’s depression worse. I felt trapped. My husband was in a dangerous, scary place with limited communication for 15 months. I was scared and lonely.

But it was all my fault. It was all in my head.

That’s what depression and anxiety tell you. That’s what people who don’t understand those conditions tell you.

When my husband came home, he was depressed, he had PTSD, and a TBI (which no one wanted to talk about because he never had an open wound, just concussions). I was depressed. We couldn’t communicate.

With a doctor’s help, I went back on my meds. I started feeling better. There was a light again. I convinced my husband to seek help. He was put on antidepressants too. He immediately hated them. He’ll claim PTSD and after much discussion, he understand he has a TBI, whether or not the VA will acknowledge it, but he refuses to admit that he’s depressed. He said the medication made him feel nothing. He went off them without discussing it with anyone.

I still take mine – I’m becoming more outspoken about mental health. I want it to be understood. I want to understand it. I don’t want people to suffer silently with it.

My mother takes her meds silently. My husband thinks they have made her dependent. That taking them makes a person weaker, unable to handle emotions, void of feeling.

I try to explain every chance I get. I think I need to have them adjusted again. I’m feeling more anxious, more out of control. I cry and feel like breaking down over the tiniest things. The world feels overwhelming again. I tried to tell him about this last night, but he said it’s because I’m still taking my meds.

I was “okay” when I had to stop while I was pregnant.

He forgets how I cried and cried. He doesn’t know how I felt inside. He said postpartum depression is just a normal state – even though I wanted to kill myself. I hid knives in the bathroom, I started clawing and biting myself again. I’ve broken down sobbing in the middle of the kitchen floor.

I NEED to take my meds to be okay. I need to have them adjusted from time to time to make sure they keep working. I don’t want to want to die. I don’t want to hate myself. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, anti-psychotics, etc. aren’t numbing us. They’re keeping us alive, just like medicine for any other condition is important and beneficial.

Never, never, NEVER let anyone tell you that your mental health is faked, isn’t important, is just a phase, or anything else. And please don’t let someone talk you out of taking or going on medication if you need it. It does work. I promise.

I’m here because of it. I plan to stay because of it.

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