In the spirit of Bell “Let’s Talk” Day, I’m dusting off the old blog to talk about my own mental illness.
I have a severe anxiety disorder. At least I believe it’s severe, since I can’t imagine this could possibly be the mild version.
Even simple tasks can induce enough anxiety in me to make me physically sick – nauseous and dizzy, pulse racing and head pounding – and so panicky that I have trouble just carrying on a conversation. As a result, I do very little to push myself, which in turn brings the depression – including fatigue, a feeling of hopelessness and the inability to feel anything resembling joy – associated with inactivity and a sense of failure. I spend my life attempting to balance my terror at taking any kind of risk with my loathing of the depression that’s likely to follow if I don’t take a risk now and then. My brain fights itself at every turn.
Right now, for example, I’m working on a freelance piece for a large media outlet. It’s the first time I’ve even attempted something like it in years, and even though things are going relatively smoothly I still wake up with a knot in my stomach and a relentless headache every weekday morning. I dread making phone calls to set up interviews just as much as I dread the interviews themselves, and I dread that I’ll eventually have to sit down and write the thing. More than one friend has asked me if I’m getting paid for the article; the answer is that I have no idea, and I can’t bring myself to ask. If I did ask I’d just be adding one more stressor, and I’d constantly be checking my inbox for a response that I didn’t really want to read.
I’m working as a substitute teacher tomorrow – a good job for someone who feels claustrophobic at the mention of any kind of commitment – and while I’m no longer anxious about the work itself, I hate the prospect of having to wake up early, make myself presentable and feign the casual, sociable air that I hope will keep the other teachers from actively disliking me.
There isn’t much in life that I truly look forward to. Most everything involves at least some degree of anxiety, and while I might enjoy a job or a social activity once it’s underway, there’s always a period of worry that precedes it. I continue to push myself, though, because a touch of anxiety is better than full-fledged depression. That’s also why I’m doing a freelance job that has me in a constant low-grade panic and might not even come with a paycheck – because I’m a writer, and ultimately, writers want to be read. Take that away and I lose an essential part of my identity.
Therapy and medication help; without them I’d either be dead or completely non-functioning. So I continue treatment in the hope that someday there will be a true cure. When that day comes I want to be around to see it, to revel in it, to breathe freely for the first time. The best thing I’ve gotten from my years of therapy is the knowledge that I deserve that wellness. This is a disease, not a character flaw.
Canadian TV sports personality Michael Landsberg (@heylandsberg) uses the spot-on hashtag #sicknotweak to talk about mental health issues. I’m writing this mostly as a little bit more therapy for myself, but it’s also my hope to communicate that message to however many people read this: Mental illness means a person is sick; it does not mean that person is weak. Anyone who suffers from mental illness but still manages to function – hell, still manages to keep breathing – has demonstrated his or her strength. And you can help that person, whether it’s yourself or someone else, grow even stronger by showing compassion. Nobody chooses this, any more than anyone chooses cancer. The mentally ill deserve the same respect and support as victims of any other disease, and if anything we need it even more.
Thank you, Bell Canada, for bringing us “Let’s Talk” day and making mental health a priority.
And thank you, reader, for being part of my treatment. Simply talking helps, but it is exponentially more valuable when someone else is listening.