Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter

Except when it totally is.

For the majority of my life, anxiety ruled every decision I made. What to wear, how to put my clothes on in the morning, whether or not I would brush my teeth, who I talked to, where I sat in vehicles and at restaurants–I was never free from fear of the most ridiculous things.

Yes, like blueberries. Which I was terrified of and didn’t eat from ages 3-19.

And then I discovered medication. There is a stigma in this country against those with mental illness, and it’s the same stigma held for those who suffer from alcoholism: that our sickness is rather a weakness of will than an actual disease or problem. I can’t tell you how much that stigma makes me want to punch a baby in the face (a lot, and I kind of like babies. They’re cute and defenseless. But they poop too much) because it encourages a lot of conversations like this:

Random Person: Oh, you take medication? Why?
Whitney: I have an anxiety disorder.

Random Person: That’s not a real thing. I don’t believe in medication. I believe that with some serious meditation and focus, you wouldn’t have any anxiety at all.

Whitney: Fuck you up your nose.

Random Person: What?

Whitney: I tried hypnotherapy. I tried normal therapy. I tried psychotherapy. I know how to meditate. My disorder is a defect in my brain. It’s a genetic malfunction. It’s like being born with an extra limb. Would you tell me to “meditate” my extra limb off? Would you tell me to “focus” on not noticing that limb until it went away? Also, do you drink or smoke weed?

Random Person: I don’t see what that has–



I have that conversation a lot, or variations of it. It’s important for everyone in this country (and the world) to recognize that mental illnesses are illnesses, like cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, the flu, or thinking that the world is only 4,000 years old (that is also a mental illness). Would you tell your friend with diabetes or a person with AIDS to just “meditate” their disease away? No. So don’t tell me that medication makes me weak, or that I’m not trying hard enough to rewire my brain so it runs properly. I have a mental illness. And I’m completely okay with that.

That stigma even runs in the community. There are those with mental illnesses who think that mine is a “phase” or a “weakness.” I had a rabid fan (read: troll/family member) email me to barrage me with insults about my disorder. He claimed I suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder, which is a disorder that is extremely volatile and painful for those who suffer from it and the people in their lives. It’s a destructive disorder, meaning that the person who suffers from it sees the worst, they are dramatic, they are violent and angry and unpredictable. I am none of those things, but this troll emailed me to belittle me with another disorder. The terrible thing is, this person suffers himself from mental illnesses. The complete disgust that I felt when reading one person with an illness insult another person using an illness from the same group is terrible. It would be like a person with skin cancer arguing with a person with breast cancer, and the person with breast cancer wished testicular cancer on the other. It’s an intertwined cruelty, and this troll should be aware of that. The email left me anxious and upset, and after meditating and ruminating on my treatment, I felt relieved.

English: irony mark – a punctuation mark...
See what I did there? I MEDITATED.

The problem is, occasionally I forget that I suffer from a disorder. My medication has allowed me to live a normal, healthy life, and when things start getting cray-cray up in my bray-bray (“brain”), I tend to freak out even more, because I forget that I have this disorder sometimes. That’s how well my medication works for the most part.

A month ago, I was under high stress. I applied to a zillion grad schools for MFA programs, which cost an arm and a leg and my firstborn child. Work was stressful because our school isn’t seeing literacy results, which is a DUH! moment because none of the literacy intervention teachers are licensed in literacy intervention, and us language arts teachers are (mostly) not certified at all. Our principal has been bearing down on us, which makes sense, but is a little too much. The fate of our school rests in our hands and the test results our students have when state testing comes around. My mom broke a dentist bill to me–a whopping $618–two days before it was due, and my dog’s cataract got worse and he also had this weird growth, costing me $145 at the vet.

I am terrified about going broke or being in poverty. That fear is called Peniaphobia and I still suffer from it. Let me just state now that, uh, I’m not close to that line and probably won’t be unless my chocolate habit develops into something way more serious and I no longer have family or friends because I’ve abandoned them and dedicated my life to Willy Wonka’s factory.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
I don’t keep any in my house, because I’d binge on it and be in the corner of my house, blinds closed, sobbing with chocolate all over my face and fingers. It’s not a pretty sight.

I started having panic attacks again. All the time. I was spazzing out at work because the littlest things frightened me. I stopped hanging out with people. I cried a lot (and I don’t cry, unless I’m reading a book or watching a movie). Then, I hit my breaking point.

After a session of professional development after school, I was exhausted and ready to go home. The problem was, I couldn’t find my keys anywhere. They weren’t in my backpack, they weren’t in my coat, they weren’t in the storage bin behind my desk, or on the floor. They weren’t in the parking lot or the hallways. Or in the room I just left. I had no idea where they were.

Now, let me say that I wasn’t really that upset about car keys. I had an extra pair in my car (smart) and an extra key to my house hidden somewhere safe. I was upset because the last really meaningful present (or first meaningful present, if you want to get technical) that my father gave me is on my key ring. It’s his Harvard class ring, and when I was growing up I never saw him without it. My freshman year of college he gave it as a sign of reconciliation and I cried when he gave it to me. He is no longer on speaking terms with me, but I hold that ring every day and think about the man who loved me when I was young.

D. Washington, Berlinale 2000
Hi, dad. How are you? You good? I love you. K. Good talk.

As I looked around and couldn’t find it, my panic grew. I hyperventilated. I cried. I almost vomited. The principal started looking for them. My lead teacher and her best friend started looking for them. I had figured out that I left them in the copy room, but we couldn’t find them anywhere. I left the building, sobbing, to check near my car again. No dice.

I came back in, and our principal had been emptying my backpack. Tears streamed down my face and I said, “I still can’t find them.”

She replied, “Well, they’re not in you’re backpack.” I broke down in hysterics.

She had called the secretaries and neither of them reported finding my keys, but she checked their desk drawers anyway. The first drawer she opened held my keys, and I started sobbing even harder.

A newborn child crying.
This was me. I am ashamed.

Then comes the part where I started laughing hysterically afterwards once I calmed down. The principal, an Amazon standing 6’2″ with a loud voice, funny stories, and a very powerful demeanor, came over and hugged me. She pressed my head to her chest and told me it was all okay, and I sobbed into her. It was probably the lowest point in my existence but also one of the funniest.

Afterwards, I called my mother and retold the story of the day. My mom laughed. “Whitney,” she said, and I could just picture her shaking her head,” Whitney. You have an anxiety disorder. Call your psychiatrist.”

I went, “Oh, yeah!” and I phoned my psychiatrist at 9:00 pm, because I am scared of dialing phones and I had to talk myself into it. I left a voicemail describing my symptoms and my emotions and what I wanted to do. In less than a half hour, he called me back and we agreed to raise my dose by 50 mg, an almost insignificant amount.

That’s another thing about mental illnesses and those who suffer from them and their care-takers: we are as close as chronically ill patients are with their doctors, because our illness doesn’t just go away. There is no cure for Schizophrenia. There is no cure for Bipolar Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is only treatment. They are chronic illnesses, but they are manageable.

And I managed the heck out of it, thank you very much.

32 thoughts on “Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter

    1. That’s an incredibly demeaning thing to say to someone who genuinely suffers from an illness. Everyone can have traits. Like everyone can get depressed, but that is a whole different world away from clinical depression. It shows ignorance and the prejudice that causes the very stigma this blogger wrote about.

  1. I miss having a therapist. I suffer from anxiety and depression, but refused to medicate because they didn’t really help… but I’m glad something works for you. A lot of people don’t understand that it never goes away, just gets managed accordingly. I’m so glad you found your keys!

  2. It astonishes me that people think we can control any type of mental illness on our own. If more people were educated about mental illness, maybe those of us who have some type of mental illness would be loved and supported and built up, instead of being ridiculed, judged and/or dismissed and pushed aside.

    Falling through the cracks of already dysfunctional healthcare systems or even simply not having the opportunity to even make it that far. Ugh. Sorry for the rant. This issue is so up close and personal to me and I am easily infuriated by it. Kat

  3. Lol, did I just read “fuck you up your nose?” Love it! I understand that a little meditation or whatever may help a person who is over stressed or having a bad day, but yes, mental illness caused by brain chemicals is totally something that drugs can and should help with!
    My dad all of a sudden became anxious in elevators and would have to stay in hotel rooms on ground floors or if they were higher, they’d have to have a balcony so he could go outside. He was in his 50s and we all just thought he was nuts. I guess he sort of was, but he didn’t get better until he found Lexapro. Now he’s cool to ride the elevators again! Probably TMI from a stranger, but i do that…

  4. I always laugh (usually like a Book of Mormon guilty laugh), and I always learn something when I read your post. You’re a delightful inspiration. Pity your mom isn’t more sympathetic though. Maybe I could punch her in the face for you?

      1. My aunt died in a psych hospital because of the abuse, they had beaten her to death. Also, as for Scientologist not believing in medication, my dads side of the family are Scientologist, so I can assure you that you have wrong information. Maybe next time you should go to the source to get your facts.

  5. Spring is not the best time for teacher’s anxiety. Grrrr. All in the name of progress. I’m glad you had peeps to help you really look for your keys. Hang in there!

  6. Thank you times a million for this post.

    Also an anxiety gal here. But when I was younger I actually did suffer from a Borderline Personality Disorder, and boy-o I would not wish that on my worst enemy. The only upside to having it is it is often a young person’s disorder and you can actually get better. Unlike the anxiety thing. So I’m still crazy, just not as horrifyingly and destructively crazy.

    My big, stupid, ugly anxiety “thing” is I fear crapping my pants in public. Which is so ridiculous that I have to have a sense of humor about it or I will explode.

    I hope to get to the point you are at some day. I want to believe with my heart that the mental illness is a real disease and not a sign of weakness. I believe it with my head, but the anxiety likes to whisper to me that it is all my fault.

    Glad you got help and adjusted your meds. And that you could laugh about the weeping thing.

  7. Can I just say that this post has helped me so much. I’m exactly the same except that I haven’t been to the doctors about the way I am. I’m scared of everything and have panic attacks all the time. This post has made me realise enough is enough. Thanks to you, I will make a doctors appointment. Thank you so much. Xx

  8. Sadly some people think that everyone should just “buck up” and “get over it”. Well, it doesn’t just go away. And why should someone “get over it” or have to deal with things on their own? If medication works, take medication. If therapy works, engage in that. We all deserve to live our lives in a way that feels right while not hurting others. I shouldn’t have to live my life for anyone else or be defined by them. Your honesty (and humour) lit up my day. Thanks!

  9. oh god, ‘cray-cray’ in the ‘bray-bray’. That is amazing. Plus anxiety disorders can suck my butt. Also, I may or may not share your choclate binge habit… I may or may not have done that very thing today… MAY. Don’t judge me.

  10. One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard was

    “depression is a sign you are hanging on to the past; anxiety is a sign that you are scared of the future”.

    I’ve never been one for medication or meditation. I witnessed my father’s own fits of anxiety on numerous occasions while growing up. Over time, it became painfully apparent that I was prone to phases of depression and that I had a low tolerance for frustration. I found it easy to get stuck on worries that were unlikely to come to fruition and I could easily lapse into a state of hyper-anxiety if I so much as said “the wrong thing” or if I couldn’t find an immediate solution to whatever problem I was faced with. When life took a turn for the worst (relationship fail) the symptoms became magnified to the point of anguish.

    Then I studied up. Not just on the DSM and current theories of mental illness, but on the history of mental disorders in general. I studied cross-cultural phenomenons such as “koro”, a disease that manifests itself in Asian males only and drives them into a paranoid state wherein they believe their penis is trying to kill them….”Well, that’s strange”, I thought. “Why does anorexia only seem prevalent in the Americas and Europe? What is it about Americans that warrants 25% of the population be under the influence of psychiatric medication?”. It’s said that mania and depression are polar opposites. I once met a Polish guy who told me “Every American I meet is like an abused child; like their is some schism in their brain preventing them from seeing things clearly”. At the time, I thought the guy was just a Euro-snob asshole. But part of what he said definitely rang a bell.

    In this country, we are taught pass/fail. Swim or sink. Conform or be a loser. Look beautiful or no one will have sex with you. What’s beauty? The girl on that magazine, that’s beauty. Be athletic or be fat. Fat is not beautiful. What’s fat? The girl on that magazine, not her, she’s beautiful. Pay attention. If you daydream too much, there is something wrong with you. HURRY, HURRY, HURRY! Early bird gets the worm. If you fall behind, you’ll be a fuckup. Did you suffer trauma as a child? There’s probably something wrong with you. Give me convenience or give me death! If it’s not NOW, it’s not convenient. Always faster, faster, faster. Wake up early to beat traffic. 5 minutes late once too often? Good luck paying the rent. Now you’re going to be a bum. You’ll never be rich and famous. Don’t forget your phone. Don’t forget to lock the door. Remember to gas up. Don’t forget your wallet. Don’t forget your coat. Don’t forget your keys and don’t forget that heirloom which is tied to so much pain…because if you lose it, you’ll never be able to replace it. If you’re never able to replace it, you’ll never be able to forgive yourself.

    Fear is the root cause of all negative energy. Depression, anxiety, hate. They all come from fear. You’re not mentally ill. I know mentally ill people. When they don’t take their meds, they wake up in a netherworld of demons, flying dogs, headless corpses and worse. They put on a wig, smear lipstick on their face and run into the streets babbling incoherently at strangers.

    I believe your reaction was completely warranted. Not that it was a rational reaction, but your concern for the ring is what drove you into that hyper-anxious state. Let me ask you; if you were born in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and lived in what anthropologists refer to as a “timeless existence”, do you think you would be suffering from these same imbalances? Sure, there are genetic predispositions for depression and anxiety, but to fly completely off the handle at that specific point, over that specific object, speaks volumes.

    You’re a fantastic writer, but as I progressed through this blog I couldn’t help but feel you were justifying your use of medication; not applauding its success. I won’t go into details about side effects here, but my father suffered some extremely crippling side-effects from years of taking his “medicine”. I can take several different drugs that will affect me in different ways. But one drug I don’t have a cure for is fear. I can medicate all the pain in the world given the proper psychiatric drug, but the torment will never truly be treated until the source of the anxiety is dealt with..

    I would recommend “A History of Madness” by Michel Foucault, “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Robert Whitaker and “Unhinged” by Daniel Carlet. I would also look into the cognitive behavioral school of psychology in regards to your panic attacks.

    Except in very, very, very severe cases of mental illness — drugs are just a band-aid. Fear is an open wound that never heals. I would ask; “What are you so afraid of?”

    “Depression is a sign that you are hanging on to the past; anxiety is a sign that you are scared of the future”.

    A guy who couldn’t send you a message on OkCupid due to your overflowing inbox. Make some space in there, why don’t you?

    P.S. You have the face of a mother, a daughter and a sister all
    rolled into one. You don’t stand out in a crowd because you
    don’t have to. There are two types of beauty; common and uncommon.
    You belong to the latter.

  11. I think you may be one of my long lost brain twins (don’t question my math–that’s a rabbit hole). Excellent post.

  12. I am having some depressed side of myself too, pretty much dangerous when it attacks me, I am having suicidal thoughts every time. Negativity kills me almost all the time, but I found the greatest medication, and it is with God alone. I don’t know how it would sound for you, but a lot has change since I met Him. It was a total turn from hiding in my closet to talking to people and telling them to share happiness. I am glad how you’re under medication and glad that you’re able to manage it.

    Prayer, that helps a lot by 100% too! Share encouragements and always on the positive side πŸ™‚ Great post!

  13. I think some of the worst people are those who claim that you can be happy if you want to. Like, you have to make the choice to be happy. I’m pretty sure people who say that come from a place of privilege who can simply think, “Well, something I don’t like happened, but there’s always tomorrow!” I lie awake at night scared of tomorrow. It’s so awful. This year, I tried to make a “positive experiences” jar. It’s a thing I saw floating around the internet. Whenever something positive happens, you write it on a piece of paper and put it in a jar. On New Year’s Eve, you read about the positive experiences of the year. So far, my jar has one thing.

    1. I mean, there’s definitely a legitimate aspect of fake-it-until-you-make-it to happiness. The simple act of smiling actually does change your mood. Granted, yes, there are SO many times where it’s like “DUDE YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT I AM TRYING TO BE HAPPY BUT THERE IS A VELOCIRAPTOR CHASING ME RIGHT NOW”

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