Mental Health Week
Apparently this week is Mental Health Awareness week. Funny how I didn’t know that. One of the few things I’m passionate about is getting rid of the stigma around mental illness. So I’m going to talk about my story.
My name is Jen and I’m mentally ill. I’ve suffered with depression my entire life and then got slammed with some severe social anxiety in high school that has only escalated over the years.
The first time I realized there was something different about me was when I was about eight or nine. I would see all the other kids happy and laughing and playing and I just didn’t feel. It just felt blah. And tired. I didn’t want to be around them. It wasn’t all the time but it happened enough that I noticed I was different, even if I didn’t understand why.
By the time I was twelve I knew I had depression. It was just typical teenage hormones as my parents wanted to believe. I would spiral into these terrifying pits of despair and somehow manage to claw my way out enough to fake it for my parents so they wouldn’t worry. Every person that suffers from severe depression learns to fake a happy smile, a normal life. Inside I was falling apart. I guess even then my anxiety was a problem. I wasn’t good a social interactions which meant I had no friends which fueled the depression and feelings of worthlessness. I was twelve and wishing I had never been born, that I would die, that maybe I could find a way out on my own.
Eventually my parents sent me to this psychologist because my parents were doing marriage counseling and they wanted to do some family stuff, too. So both me and my brother had to go on Saturday mornings. I fucking hated it. The chick was a cunt bitch. She was rude and condescending and looked at me like I was trash. There I was suffering from a severe mental illness and she was telling me to get over it and act my age. Her greatest advice to me was to stop hanging around my best friend who was five years younger than me (I was 14 at the time and she was 9 and we were like sisters) and find friends my own age. I told her I had nothing in common with those girls who only talked about celebrities, boys, clothes, shoes, gossip and other girlie crap. I did not fit in with them, nor did I want to try.
Then one day she pissed me off so I quit talking to her. I was so mad. I screamed and cried for my mom to not make me go but they forced me. So every week I wasted an hour of my Saturday staring at the ugly carpet in her office, arms cross defiantly over my chest. She tried to sooth me, cajole me, sweet talk me, bribe me, and when none of that worked she threatened to have me sent to a group home for bad girls because I was a bad girl. That hurt but I knew it was a bluff because she’d need my parents’ permission and they’d never in a million years send me away. My mom finally stopped making me go after that but I never told her about the threats.
I plugged along through high school as my anxiety grew. The crowded halls felt like they were closing in on me and I would grip my books so tight to keep from freaking out. In college the stress of working and classes and having my first serious boyfriend made things worse. I found I do not deal well with stress. At nineteen I was a sophomore at a small college in Missouri. My roommates were total bitches and forbid me from using our private bathroom because I refused to clean it one week after I had barely used it and they made a huge mess. The tension in the room was so bad I took to sneaking off to my boyfriend’s room. His roommate was getting tired of that so I slept in the TV lounge in the basement a lot. With the cockroaches and the bats. I slipped farther and farther into depression.
One night I got into a huge fight with my boyfriend–my only friend at school. I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I felt the need to tear my hair out, scratch my skin off. I ran out of the dorms on a cool spring night and wandered around in the dark with no jacket, just a flannel shirt. It was cold. I didn’t know what to do but I knew I couldn’t stay at school. I had no money, this was back before cell phones. I found myself walking along the highway heading out of town. There was a sidewalk but as I got about a mile away I decided I was too tired and cold to keep going. I turned and started to cross the street when I saw the headlights coming from a big rig doing 40+ MPH. One foot hovering over the curb, a thought rushed through my head, “I wonder if it would hurt much if I just stepped down now.”
I didn’t, the truck blew by nearly knocking me over and I burst into tears. I almost killed myself. Over the rest of the year I imagined different ways I could kill myself so I could get away from the misery I was in. Even after my boyfriend apologized and we were together again. I kept it all hidden from everyone except him. Well he knew some of it but not how deep it was.
After I quit school and some of the stress was gone I was a little better. I still cried myself to sleep many nights wondering what I had done to deserve the pain I was in. And still I never told anyone.
Then I grew up a little and got married. Had a baby. Then another and another. Right in a row. My hormones were all over the place, my marriage was falling to pieces, we were living with my dad who expected me to be just like my mother who had died just after my first child was born. The stress was mounting. And still I hid it as much as I could. I cried silently into my pillow at night so I wouldn’t disturb my husband. I went about my daily tasks with a fake smile on my face. I thought about killing myself because my family would be better off without me.
I did get some help during that time. After my 2nd child was born the hospital forced me to see a shrink because I was having a breakdown in the hospital. I saw him once a month for 15 minutes (after an hour+ drive and a 2 hour wait) for him to barely look at me and ask me how I was. In which case I would lie and say fine. He gave me pills that didn’t work. Eventually I got tired of going so I stopped taking the pills. When I was pregnant with my 3rd child I had a complete breakdown in the OB’s office after I failed my 1hr glucose test because I hated that test. It made me so sick and I didn’t want to do the 3hr one again. I was hysterical. My doctor put me on Prozac which I took for 8 months. Then one day I realized it wasn’t doing anything for me. I was taking it daily and I didn’t feel any different than I did before. So I just threw them in the trash and went about my life with the fake smile planted on my face.
Baby number 4 came in the midst of my marriage falling apart, 500 miles away from our closest family. My husband suddenly decided his job was to go to work and that was it. I had to care for the kids (then 5, 4, 3 and a newborn). My depression just kept getting worse and worse. I thought more and more about killing myself. Wondering if hanging myself or ODing was the better option. I got help a little while after she was born. I did a few therapy sessions and was given some meds. But they made me feel more suicidal so I threw them away. I had dealt with this my whole life, I could keep dealing. All with that fake happy smile I hated so fucking much.
I had a major nervous breakdown in 2007. We were moving back to Chicago to live with my dad again. I had to do all the packing and planning myself. My husband left two months before school ended so I had to stay behind with 4 kids (then 6, 5, 4 and 15 months). Oh, and two new puppies that were not housebroken. The kids were out of control. I was beyond stressed, so far down in the pit of depression I didn’t see a way out.
I kept fighting. Year after year, wondering if this was as good as it would get. I didn’t enjoy any of my children’s childhoods. I was locked in the haze of my mental illness, barely enough energy to keep them fed and clothed (and sometimes that was impossible) and off to school. In 2009 I had a miscarriage but it didn’t really upset me. My emotions were so fucked up by then I didn’t know what to think about it. But later that year I got pregnant again. Pregnancy and me don’t do well together. Just after I found out my husband announced he put in for a job transfer to Portland, OR. The depression and stress got work. In April 2010, just after our youngest daughter turned 4 and I entered my 3rd trimester, he left to go to Oregon. I was living at my dad’s with four kids (9, 8, 7 and 4). My dad was kind of emotionally and mentally abusive to me. I was exhausted from the pregnancy that I couldn’t tell anyone about because they would freak. I had no car so I took buses to my appointments in the stifling heat and walked two blocks to the grocery store every other day to pick up food to feed all 6 of us (my dad was disabled so he rarely left the house).
As soon as Jack was born my OB put me on some anti-depressants. They seemed to help a little but then we moved and the pills ran out and my social anxiety keeps me from using a phone. I know it’s fucking stupid but when a phone rings I have a panic attack. And if someone suggests I call someone I completely freak out.
Things in our new house were okay at first. But then in November 2011 I just suddenly spiraled out of control. It was bad and fast and terrifying. It was like all emotion shut down in me. I couldn’t even fake it for the family. I kept going on doing all my chores and taking care of 5 kids and my husband and doing all the yard work, and the laundry and anything else that needed done. People were constantly needing things for me and all I got in return was bitching and whining. I had zero friends, my husband was emotionally abusive. Everything was out of control in my head. I felt like there was so much noise I couldn’t find my own voice. It was too much and I couldn’t make it stop.
The breaking point came one day–I don’t remember which one. I remember I was trying to do my regular cleaning but the kids were home and fighting and every room I cleaned they’d make a mess and they all wanted my attention and the baby was crying and I needed to cook dinner and I hadn’t eaten all day or slept more than 4 hours a night in months despite the baby having been sleeping through the night for months. I felt the room spinning, the noise in my head was so loud I had to cover my ears which didn’t help. I knew my mind was slipping away.
It was the most fucking scariest moment of my life. I just dropped what I was doing, went into my room, locked the door then went into the bathroom. I rocked and rocked, trying to find a way out but it was all dark and I all I could see was more of that every single day for the rest of my life. There was so much pain–emotional and mental and physical (because yes there is physical pain that goes with depression). I was so tired of pain. Of feeling the way I did. I was tired of getting up every morning. I dreaded it. Just as much as I dreaded going to bed because I couldn’t sleep. I’d suffered from insomnia for years. I cried myself to sleep more often than not and would just stare at blank walls. I felt nothing except anger. There was no happiness or joy in my life. Just despair and anger (at everyone, but mostly myself because I felt worthless, lower than dirt, I truly believed I needed to die to save my family from me because I was nothing). That day I sat there in the bathroom holding a bottle of muscle relaxers in my hand, shaking so hard and wondering how many it would take to knock me completely out because 1 made me loopy as hell and one time it made it hard to breathe which scared me.
I have no idea how long I sat there. The kids banged on the door wanting dinner and the baby needed a diaper change and all I could do was cry or just stare at the pills. My husband finally came home from work and found the kids still up at like 10-11pm, hungry and dirty. He made me open the door. I didn’t know what to tell him. I cried and begged for help. I was so scared. I’m not sure he really got it. He promised to make an appointment for me to see a doctor. But he never did. He expected me to just snap out of it like I did before–all those times I sucked it up and hid the pain under that fucking fake smile.
My health slowly deteriorated. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I could barely get out of bed and when I did I felt like a zombie. My thoughts were consumed with hate towards myself and ways to kill myself. The only thing stopping me was the thought of my kids finding my body. The physical pain got worse. It was hard to move. I started shuffling like a 90 year old woman. I would wring my hands together or grip the hem of my shirt. I laid in bed trying to sleep. I had to stay in my room or I thought I might lose it again.
My husband looked at me with disgust half the time. I felt so alone. Sometimes he was great, though. Then he realized I wasn’t joking around and I wasn’t just being dramatic to get sympathy. I had become mute. I couldn’t talk. I’d open my mouth to say something but no words would come out. I just COULD NOT MAKE MYSELF SPEAK. It was terrifying. I needed help and had no voice to ask. He held me one night as I sobbed into his shirt. I was so tired and scared. He kept trying to get me to talk about but I couldn’t. It took me two hours before I was finally able to push a few words out. It was the first I had spoken in days and it was hard. I told him about the pills and how I didn’t want to get up any more. I wanted the world to go away.
The next day he hauled me out of bed and took me to the doctor, appointments were made, paper work filled out. I felt nothing. I was completely numb except for the anger.
That was three years ago. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist since then and I’m on several different medications now to help control my moods, anxiety and insomnia. They’ve helped some but I still feel blah a lot of the time but I’m not suicidal. But I do still fake that smile a lot because when I’m express how I really feel, talk about how depressed I am my family gets upset and that’s all my fault so I have to hide it.
I do have hope now. Hope that I’ll be able to live a somewhat satisfying life. There was no hope before. All I saw was blackness in my future–pain and numbness.
The point is none of that was dramatics. It was all real. I suffered alone for so long I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t think anyone gave a fuck about me. I thought the world would be better off without me. Being depressed completely fucks with your head. Your reasoning and logic are beyond messed up.
The whole thing still scares me. I worry constantly that I’ll slip back into that dark pit and maybe that will be the time I can’t get out. And part of the big problem is other people look at you and don’t see an illness. They see the fake smiles or the tired faces and tell you to snap out of it or get over it or quit being a baby. So you feel weak and unworthy and stupid for not being able to control your brain.
And that fucking sucks. Because mental illness is not any different than any other kind of illness. No body would ever tell a cancer patient to get over it, suck it up or quit being a baby when they are in pain. They’d never tell them they were weak for taking medication to make them better or accuse them of lying to get attention.
No, they get support. Tons of it. From family and friends and doctors and nurses and complete strangers. They are loved and helped and encouraged. People with depression and other mental illness a lot of the time are shunned. They are looked down upon, not taken seriously or just plain out ignored. The people most vulnerable, the most in need of human contact and help are the ones that I sneered at and left to deal with things alone. Even if they have family and friends that want to help they don’t know how and tend to make things worse instead of just being there for the person. They all have comments and opinions about your brain.
Then there’s the people that don’t believe mental illness even exists. And how does someone so sick and messed up in the head fight against that? It’s sickening.
And getting help for your mental illness? It can be a nightmare. I’m lucky enough that our insurance through my husband’s job has great mental health coverage. But many are not so lucky. They suffer in silence, unable to afford therapy or a doctor to prescribe prescriptions they could never afford. My cocktail without insurance is like $400 for a 3 month supply. I usually pay $60.
I find it sad that in this day and age, the 21st century, that people with mental illness are still treated like 2nd class citizens, scorned and ignored. By family, doctors and our government. We are out there. A lot more than you probably think. We’re good at hiding because it’s our only defense mechanism. But I’d give a guess that someone you know has a mental illness. Probably more than just one. It’s time to reach out to those people suffering and bring them into the light, get them the help they need, show them they are no less important than the cancer patient or the guy with a broken leg. Believe them when they tell you they hurt all over, that they are tired. Be patient because the change doesn’t happen overnight. I took almost a year before I didn’t feel like a zombie any more.
But most important is be there. Don’t look the other way because it scares you or hurts you to see the pain your loved one is in. They might not be verbally asking for help but they need it.
This message brought to you by Jen Connelly, diagnosed: severe clinical depression, severe social anxiety, severe general anxiety