Musings on Mental Illness

I had my first anxiety attack when I was 13 years old. I was sitting at a long table in one of the only restaurants in the small city where my father grew up. It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral, and my massive Italian family gathered to share memories of her over supper — a sacred time for any Italian family. I remember sitting at the table, antipasto on a small plate in front of me, when one of my cousins remarked on how sad it was that Grandma was gone, but how happy we should all be that she was finally reunited with Papa, whom she had missed terribly in the eight years since his passing. We discussed for a few minutes how relieved we were not to have to watch her suffer through the cancer that for months had left her weak and in pain. We talked about how she was a woman of great faith, and was certainly going to enjoy an eternity in Heaven. We all agreed that there was great comfort in knowing that she was finally at peace. It was then that one of my cousins blurted out the innocent phrase that would be my first “trigger.”

“Can you imagine eternity? Like, forever…it’s weird to think about.”

For most people this may come across as an innocent musing — what does “eternity” look like? But for me, those words traveled to a space in the far reaches of my mind that couldn’t quite cope with the fact that we will all die one day. There is no escaping it. And for someone like myself who desires to have control over all aspects of their life, this concept was just far too much to bear. What comes next? What is eternity like? Why can’t we stop ourselves from dying? Why don’t we have any control over how all of this happens?

Some of these questions may seem silly to you, but they are questions that haunt me still. Even as I sit here, I can feel that tightening in my chest, radiating down to my core, and inching ever closer to the lump that will inevitably form in my throat. Today I am in control of it, because I am sitting here, writing, focusing on getting words out to form a cohesive piece to share with all of you. But at 13, all I knew was that I couldn’t breathe, my vision was blurry, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it might explode. My gut reaction was to run — I felt like I had to physically remove myself from the fear that seemed like it was suffocating me inside that big, open room. So, I speed walked to the bathroom, where I flung the stall door closed and sat on the toilet, crying, unable to catch my breath. I don’t know how long I sat there trying to convince myself that I was ok. Just breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Having no idea what had come over me, I was fairly certain that this was going to be an isolated incident. I was just upset about losing my Grandma. That’s all it was, right?

A few weeks later I woke up from a sound sleep and opened my eyes in a pitch black room. I immediately began to feel the same symptoms that I felt that evening at dinner a few weeks before. It was so bad that I went downstairs and woke my father. I explained what was happening, and he immediately said “Ok, that’s an anxiety attack.” He was familiar because he himself also suffered from them — something I was unaware of until that point. He discussed some of the techniques he used to deal with his anxiety. Then he walked me back to bed and kissed my forehead, promising me that everything was just fine. He got me into counseling and for many years, my anxiety was relatively under control.

Nine years later, while I was five months pregnant, I knelt on the floor next to my dad, clutching his hand to my chest, begging him to breathe, as he suffered a massive heart attack. He died that night, and my anxiety attacks came back in full force. This time, they resulted in sheer panic. I didn’t need to experience a trigger; I would just sit there and suddenly find that I couldn’t breathe. Again, my chest was tight and my heart felt like it was going to pound straight through my rib cage. I had been in therapy, and while it helped, it was not enough to counter the debilitating anxiety that I experienced almost daily. Finally, I agreed to go to the Psychiatrist.

I walked into Dr. A’s office that Tuesday afternoon with my mind made up that I was NOT going to take any medications. I was confident (read: ignorant) that I could, by the sheer power of my will, and the guidance of the doctor, figure out how to rid myself of the anxiety, for good. I sunk down into the comfort of his big leather chair and began to explain why I was there. “But I don’t want to have to take meds” I said. I promptly proceeded to have an anxiety attack right there in front of him. I had an anxiety attack, while explaining to my doctor why I had anxiety.

He explained to me that he absolutely felt like I needed something, even if just short term, to assist me in keeping my anxiety at bay. When I first walked in to the pharmacy with those two prescriptions in hand, I felt such shame and judgement. “The pharmacist is going to think I’m just another one of those people who went to the doctor begging for Xanax” I thought to myself. But then, after a few weeks, things started to change, and I started to feel better. I went a whole day without an anxiety attack, then a few days, then a week, and then several weeks, until it was months between episodes. I found that the medication gave me the time to focus and figure out what my triggers were and how to avoid them. It allowed me the clarity to work through some of the underlying issues that were contributing to my pervasive sense of fear.

I’m no longer on meds for a variety of reasons — one of which is that for someone who is gainfully employed and has employer sponsored healthcare benefits, the staggering cost of many of these medications is prohibitive. This is yet another reason why things like The Affordable Care Act are important. Restricting someone’s access to affordable medication that can improve their overall quality of life should be of concern to everyone, but this sounds like a topic for another day.

I am not suggesting that everyone with mental health issues should take medication. I am not a professional in the field of mental health, but I have more familiarity with the subject than I would care to admit, and I would suggest to anyone that they do the research on local psychiatrists before scheduling an appointment. What I AM suggesting is that it’s time that we stop living this part of our lives in the shadows. The more we talk about mental health, the more acceptable it will be for every day people like you and me to seek the help we need to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. By removing the stigma associated with mental illness, we may not remove the impact it has on our lives, but we can remove the barriers to effective treatment, and that in itself is HOPE.

If you or someone you know is struggling with Mental Illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at https://www.nami.org/ for information, resources, and more.

l Illness

I had my first anxiety attack when I was 13 years old. I was sitting at a long table in one of the only restaurants in the small city where my father grew up. It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral, and my massive Italian family gathered to share memories of her over supper — a sacred time for any Italian family. I remember sitting at the table, antipasto on a small plate in front of me, when one of my cousins remarked on how sad it was that Grandma was gone, but how happy we should all be that she was finally reunited with Papa, whom she had missed terribly in the eight years since his passing. We discussed for a few minutes how relieved we were not to have to watch her suffer through the cancer that for months had left her weak and in pain. We talked about how she was a woman of great faith, and was certainly going to enjoy an eternity in Heaven. We all agreed that there was great comfort in knowing that she was finally at peace. It was then that one of my cousins blurted out the innocent phrase that would be my first “trigger.”

“Can you imagine eternity? Like, forever…it’s weird to think about.”

For most people this may come across as an innocent musing — what does “eternity” look like? But for me, those words traveled to a space in the far reaches of my mind that couldn’t quite cope with the fact that we will all die one day. There is no escaping it. And for someone like myself who desires to have control over all aspects of their life, this concept was just far too much to bear. What comes next? What is eternity like? Why can’t we stop ourselves from dying? Why don’t we have any control over how all of this happens?

Some of these questions may seem silly to you, but they are questions that haunt me still. Even as I sit here, I can feel that tightening in my chest, radiating down to my core, and inching ever closer to the lump that will inevitably form in my throat. Today I am in control of it, because I am sitting here, writing, focusing on getting words out to form a cohesive piece to share with all of you. But at 13, all I knew was that I couldn’t breathe, my vision was blurry, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it might explode. My gut reaction was to run — I felt like I had to physically remove myself from the fear that seemed like it was suffocating me inside that big, open room. So, I speed walked to the bathroom, where I flung the stall door closed and sat on the toilet, crying, unable to catch my breath. I don’t know how long I sat there trying to convince myself that I was ok. Just breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Having no idea what had come over me, I was fairly certain that this was going to be an isolated incident. I was just upset about losing my Grandma. That’s all it was, right?

A few weeks later I woke up from a sound sleep and opened my eyes in a pitch black room. I immediately began to feel the same symptoms that I felt that evening at dinner a few weeks before. It was so bad that I went downstairs and woke my father. I explained what was happening, and he immediately said “Ok, that’s an anxiety attack.” He was familiar because he himself also suffered from them — something I was unaware of until that point. He discussed some of the techniques he used to deal with his anxiety. Then he walked me back to bed and kissed my forehead, promising me that everything was just fine. He got me into counseling and for many years, my anxiety was relatively under control.

Nine years later, while I was five months pregnant, I knelt on the floor next to my dad, clutching his hand to my chest, begging him to breathe, as he suffered a massive heart attack. He died that night, and my anxiety attacks came back in full force. This time, they resulted in sheer panic. I didn’t need to experience a trigger; I would just sit there and suddenly find that I couldn’t breathe. Again, my chest was tight and my heart felt like it was going to pound straight through my rib cage. I had been in therapy, and while it helped, it was not enough to counter the debilitating anxiety that I experienced almost daily. Finally, I agreed to go to the Psychiatrist.

I walked into Dr. A’s office that Tuesday afternoon with my mind made up that I was NOT going to take any medications. I was confident (read: ignorant) that I could, by the sheer power of my will, and the guidance of the doctor, figure out how to rid myself of the anxiety, for good. I sunk down into the comfort of his big leather chair and began to explain why I was there. “But I don’t want to have to take meds” I said. I promptly proceeded to have an anxiety attack right there in front of him. I had an anxiety attack, while explaining to my doctor why I had anxiety.

He explained to me that he absolutely felt like I needed something, even if just short term, to assist me in keeping my anxiety at bay. When I first walked in to the pharmacy with those two prescriptions in hand, I felt such shame and judgement. “The pharmacist is going to think I’m just another one of those people who went to the doctor begging for Xanax” I thought to myself. But then, after a few weeks, things started to change, and I started to feel better. I went a whole day without an anxiety attack, then a few days, then a week, and then several weeks, until it was months between episodes. I found that the medication gave me the time to focus and figure out what my triggers were and how to avoid them. It allowed me the clarity to work through some of the underlying issues that were contributing to my pervasive sense of fear.

I’m no longer on meds for a variety of reasons — one of which is that for someone who is gainfully employed and has employer sponsored healthcare benefits, the staggering cost of many of these medications is prohibitive. This is yet another reason why things like The Affordable Care Act are important. Restricting someone’s access to affordable medication that can improve their overall quality of life should be of concern to everyone, but this sounds like a topic for another day.

I am not suggesting that everyone with mental health issues should take medication. I am not a professional in the field of mental health, but I have more familiarity with the subject than I would care to admit, and I would suggest to anyone that they do the research on local psychiatrists before scheduling an appointment. What I AM suggesting is that it’s time that we stop living this part of our lives in the shadows. The more we talk about mental health, the more acceptable it will be for every day people like you and me to seek the help we need to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. By removing the stigma associated with mental illness, we may not remove the impact it has on our lives, but we can remove the barriers to effective treatment, and that in itself is HOPE.

If you or someone you know is struggling with Mental Illness, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at https://www.nami.org/ for information, resources, and more.

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