In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week-I have decided to take the plunge and spill my guts about my battle with mental illness in as open and honest a way that I can muster. I am in no way, shape or form a medical professional, nor am I an expert in mental illness in any way. Anything that I say here is strictly based on my personal experiences. I simply want to share my story in hopes that people will identify with it and pursue steps to treat themselves, or at the very least-they will know that they are not alone.
To start, I have battled-and continue to battle-a few different strains of mental illness that all happen to intertwine at certain points of my life. At times I cannot differentiate them-as one is either a catalyst for the others or they are blurred beyond the point of recognition. There are three in particular that I can confidently assert as a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. Depression, anxiety, and OCD.
Depression is one that I feel laid its eggs in my psyche when I was a child, only truly manifesting itself when things aren’t going well in my life. Anxiety has taken over much more predominantly as I’ve grown older-and new challenges and responsibilities have come about. In what is an incredibly frustrating chain reaction, anxiety causes me to destroy myself both physically (heres the OCD) and mentally, therefore leading to shame and depression.
One factor that has amplified these afflictions, unfortunately, has been the complete and total awareness of them. Knowing that I have a problem challenges my brain to say “well, how are we going to fix this?”. Knowing that if I could just change jobs, make more money, cut people out my life, find ways to relax-if only it were such an easy thing. Knowing that there are people out there making spontaneous and major life decisions with ease makes me wildly jealous and all the more insecure that I cannot do it myself. My inability to act and to take positive steps towards a happiness that I imagine to exist causes the insecurities and the stress to swirl through every minute of every day. Knowing that tomorrow I will wake up no better off, even though yesterday could have been the day that I did something real. Knowing that the voices in my head that are shouting threats of failure and running through every possible negative consequence-might be wrong. Knowing that these small issues that I damage myself over are nothing to worry about in the vast spectrum of space and time. Knowing that I cannot do this by sheer will alone, as much as I want to. It hurts.
On my first day of second grade, I took a small bus to school and met a group of new kids (I had just moved to town) and they made a comment that stuck with me my entire life. “Dont talk to that girl. She talks too much.” Now I constantly worry that I am bothering everyone by simply talking to them. I struggled in my youth with problems at home, being insecure about my appearance, and wanting to fit in. I wanted everyone to like me. I would sacrifice my own well being and happiness to give to others in a hopes that I would gain their admiration. I wanted to be smart, beautiful, desirable, well liked, independent-everything that I want to be as an adult. Perfect. Something that simply does not exist. I was afraid of absolutely everything. I would see the “doomsday tabloids” set up at the cash registers in the grocery store and believe what they said. I was constantly convinced that the world was going to end. I would hide when my family watched the news so that I wouldn’t have to hear about robbers, aliens, ghosts or killer bees. I knew so little about the world, but somehow I was afraid of all of it. I had no idea what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like-whether romantic or platonic, and that continues to elude me in many ways. I spent nearly a decade working in an industry that brought me absolutely no joy-and in fact made me even more depressed as I dreamt of a life where I was doing something that I loved.
I always knew that I was depressed, but I never knew what to call it. I was just sad. My soul felt heavy. I felt lost and hopeless. I felt like my body was empty. Sometimes I still catch myself sitting in silence, dwelling on absolutely nothing, as if my brain had turned to mush. It is a feeling akin to floating on top of the water while it fills your ears. It steals away your emotional depth and your capacity to care. You simply exist while times slips away in an instant.
Anxiety is quite the opposite in that you care about everything to the point that it causes you distress. I stress about how many hours of sleep that I might get if I fall asleep at *x o clock* and if it will be enough to function tomorrow. I stress about every interaction that I have with the outside world and hope that I did it “right”. I worry that I will never strike a balance between a career that allows me to channel my creativity while being financially prosperous. Now that I’m a Mom I worry that all of my insecurities and my emotional weight will affect my son someday. All I do is worry.
Anyone with anxiety will likely tell you that an anxiety attack is the worst bi-product of this ordeal. You feel like you are at the peak of a roller coaster that will never descend, like the contents of your stomach have relocated to another region of your body. It is as crippling as fear and steals the air from your lungs-like the feeling right after you nearly get in a car accident. I have been taking anti depressants for months now, but I decided one day that I would discontinue them and try to treat myself. Within 48 hours I was in fetal position, bawling my eyes out and hyperventilating. I thought that I could fight this alone.
The one thing in my life that continues to bring my tremendous stress and confusion is my OCD. Since I was very young I would pick at my scabs-and since I seemed unable to lift my feet properly when I ran-I had a lot of them. I started to pick my nails, and when I hit puberty I began to pick at my face and body. These habits never ceased and eventually got much worse. I started wearing foundation when I was in my early teen years to cover my scabs from incessant picking and prodding at my face, my arms, my chest, anything that I could get my hands on. In my early 20s I continued these bad habits, and my boyfriend would point out what I was doing. I felt utterly ashamed and embarrassed of this bizarre behaviour because I didn’t see it happening to anyone else around me.
Only recently did I decide to do some research in hopes that I would gain a better understanding of what I was doing. I came to not only learn that it had a name-several in fact-but that I was most definitely not alone. What I always thought was “just a thing that I do” I now know as Dermatillomania, Excoriation disorder and skin picking disease. Although this has helped me significantly, it has not stopped the symptoms. In fact, in the last few years it has gotten to the point where I pick and cut my nails completely out of my finger. I unconsciously pick at things that I have already picked to the point of blood and pain and I participate in a cycle of destruction and shame on a daily basis that never ceases to leave me feeling overwhelmed and ugly. There is no way around it, I CANNOT stop. I have also come realize that this is likely the same demon that makes it impossible for me to make the right dietary choices. No matter how much I want to lose weight, I continue to punish myself with food that I want and proceed to beat myself up emotionally when I look at myself in the mirror. These thoughts follow me around like a shadow and frankly,it is a burden that have taken over my life.
With full support from my partner I walked into my doctors office several months ago and tried my best to articulate my feelings and my afflictions. Even though she is a doctor, I still felt apprehensive and embarrassed about being a grown woman who can’t stop picking her nails and worrying about whether or not people like her. Somehow, I managed to express that I was suffering and that I needed help. She offered me anti depressants to help with the anxiety, and they have been a big help. Like I mentioned above, as much as I want to get through this on my own, sometimes that is not an option. The Dermatillomania is still on shakey ground as it is not something that is well known to doctors and requires special knowledge to understand-so I am working on that.
When it comes to my everyday life, I have made an effort to bring things into my life that give me joy and relief from the weight of the world. Whether it be watching my favorite shows, enjoying the fresh air of the outside world or spending time with my family. I have made an effort to change my perspective and focus on all of the wonderful things that I have and the things that I have to look forward to. Pop culture is a huge passion of mine, so being able to look forward to new movies, new comics, new shows and new music everyday gives me a lot of positive energy and allows me to see a light in my future at all times. I try to get extra sleep when I can. I indulge in my hobbies, like writing and cooking. I talk to my husband whenever I am feeling low. As much as I feel that I am burdening him with my problems, he is supportive and encourages me to open up-something that I have rarely done with anyone in my life.
For nearly two decades I have walked around with a chaotic soul searching for peace. I have grown and matured but often feel that I haven’t moved an inch. I still feel the insecurities of a teenage girl and I still crumble at the first sign of failure. I am passionate and incredibly caring, and I know that has a tendency to be my greatest weakness. I know that many of the invasive thoughts that eclipse my brain are figments of my imagination and that I need not let them consume me. I know that I am loved, and that I need to love myself.
My name is Danielle, and I have a mental illness, and its going to be okay.