Altering Perceptions of Mental Illness-- It's a long road

Apr 22, 2014

It's no secret that many writers deal with mental illnesses of some kind. For some reason, the creative mind seems particularly prone to them. And despite the fact that many of us are trying to change our perception and others' perceptions about mental illnesses as actual illnesses, I think we still have a ways to go.

Author Robison Wells has been very open online about his several mental illnesses, and I am personally so grateful to him for that. Why? Because I deal with mental illness too. Rob's are much more severe than mine. So severe that he's in deep medical debt. And right now, his friends and fellow authors have banded together to help him. Before I go any farther, please go check out the IndieGoGo campaign to help raise this money-- not only can you get an anthology of fabulous work by well-known authors like Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, but a host of other things as well. You'll be helping a fellow writer and human being through a financially-devastating illness.

Now, I'll get a little personal. I've dealt with episodic depression and anxiety for years-- in fact, there was a point in my life where I didn't even realize that's what it was. But looking back, I recognize it now. For me, it wasn't until after my second child that it got bad enough for me to recognize it in the moment. Four months after my baby was born, I sat in the car with my children, trying to cry as quietly as possible so they wouldn't hear, and no longer saw a point to life.

I wasn't quite suicidal, but it was a wake-up call. I called my doctor that afternoon, and was diagnosed with postpartum depression the next day. I was given a number for a psychiatrist and a prescription for anti-depressants. Driving home, I had a strange mix of relief that I could treat what was wrong with me, and shame. Shame for the pills in that little white bag on the seat next to me. I should have been able to fix this. Why couldn't I just control my emotions, change my attitude, and make it better? Why was I so weak that I needed a pill for my damn EMOTIONS?

You see, even as a sufferer of a mental illness, I didn't see it as an illness. I simply saw myself as weak.

Looking back now, I'm still not sure if my depression was true postpartum, the beginnings of my multiple sclerosis symptoms, or some mixture of both. I don't think it really matters. Whether it was hormones screwing with my brain, or my immune system eating away at the nerves directing my emotional currents, it was out of my control. My physical MS symptoms started within the next month and a half, and after I was diagnosed, we discovered that some of my MS symptoms were being exacerbated by the side-effects of my anti-depression meds. Cautiously, I weaned myself from them under my doctor's care, and watched as my MS symptoms abated completely.

Fred and George, my new zebra finches, are helpful as
my cheerful little therapy birds.
I've now been unmedicated for my depression and anxiety for a year, but the illness hasn't gone away. I have a suspicion that the nerves damaged in my initial MS attack are permanently scarred, because the things that can trigger my other MS symptoms to resurface temporarily-- heat, tiredness, stress, eating certain foods--trigger my mental symptoms as well. I'm managing with alternate therapies like therapy animals, real therapy, meditation, diet changes, etc., but there are days when the anxiety especially renders me incapable of doing things.

It's exhausting, mentally, physically, and financially, to look at the rest of my life and realize I'll likely struggle with this forever. That I'll have to be very careful with the medications I take for it. But I've finally gotten to the point where I realize it IS an illness. We tend to view illness in our world as something physical. Something obvious to others-- a cough, a rash, glassy eyes, hot forehead. Emotions and mental processes, however, are invisible. And we are taught they can be under our control if we just try hard enough. But when the brain is broken-- when chemicals malfunction, when nerve signals short-circuit--it's invisible, it's "in our head." It's hard to understand that just because it's in the brain doesn't mean we control it with our thoughts or willpower.

I've realized there's not much I can say to really remove the stigma of mental illness. Even I, who thought I truly viewed them as real illnesses, still felt shame over my own lack of control when those illnesses took me over. Even I still feel guilt on the worst days for being unable to do the things I want and need to do, for putting pressure on my family, for crying in public. It can be hard for an outsider to distinguish mental illness from other things like laziness, drugs, or just "being weird and crazy." And I think that's why it's so hard to change the stigma, to change the fact that we often view mental illness as craziness, laziness, or the patient's own fault.

My friends, I know some of you deal with these illnesses. If you don't, I guarantee you know someone who does. I know it can be strange and uncomfortable to see yourself or someone else going through it, and hard to change our thought processes. To all of you, I say, be kind. Be kind to the ones you know. It's hard, when you yourself don't understand what's going on in their head. You don't have to understand. Start by being kind. Give people the benefit of the doubt instead of a judging glance. Be kind to yourself-- which, if you're the one suffering, is the hardest thing of all. Do what you can to let go of guilt and self-judgment.

And, if you can, check out the anthology and support a fellow human being who needs it.


Katherine Ernst said...

Wonderful post! The only way to remove the stigma is for more people to come out and speak honestly like you're doing. :)

Unknown said...

Beautiful post, Shallee. It's so very true, and such a big problem that goes unstated so much of the time! Thinking of you and those I know who struggle with similar things!

Andrea Harris said...

Sista Shallee!

I love how brave you are. As someone who suffered ignorantly from major OCD, depression, and anxiety for the first 30 years of my life, I am a huge advocate of getting these topics on the table and talked about. In fact, the Ladies' Home Journal is working up a piece about me and OCD for a future issue. (Crazy!) Writing openly about it was as cathartic and it was horrifyingly vulnerable. Keep the conversation and support going. You're not alone. :)

Anonymous said...

I feel as you do and suffer from other people's preconceived notions of what someone like me with bipolar is like. I don't tell people because I'm afraid of their reactions and yes, there is the shame. Even my kids didn't know till recently. I cope the best I can. Most days are better than they used to be with my meds. I can live an almost normal life. It doesn't help that because of the events in media, others who are trying hard to take care of themselves get penalized. Sometimes it feels as though their is a witch hunt for those with mental illness, to put them on lists, and wait for them to prove unworthy of being in society. But we are just like everyone else, trying to cope with what God has given us. Are we perfect? No. But odds are others aren't either. I'm lucky to have a great, supportive group of friends and a family who cares. It's hard to write this for fear of backlash, those pointing fingers, but I'm not out to hurt anyone. I'm just struggling to survive and have a bit of happiness.

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

I sympathize. So much! I've never been diagnosed, but I have a number of strong suspicions. Anxiety is absolutely part of it. Depression, likewise. Beyond that, I'm educated-guessing. But antidepressants--if I can judge from a course of methylated folic acid--make me wired till I feel crazy as heck, so I can't take those, and I'm afraid to take what I think they might give me if I tell them what regular antidepressants do to me. Possibly I should stop being a big chicken and just go in.

I'm so sorry you're struggling with depression, anxiety, and MS. So very sorry. It's so many burdens! I hope you're well surrounded and supported.

If it helps, some of my older friends with anxiety have told me that that, for them, has tapered off with age.

Virtual hug and prayers from this old internet-friend!

P.S. I LOVE that you called your birds Fred and George. :D

Jenilyn Collings said...

Fred and George are adorable!! I love them!

David P. King said...

Kudos to you for speaking up. As one who works in mental illness, it's not spoken of enough. You rock! :)

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