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.
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–
Whitney: THAT’S ALTERING YOUR BRAIN LIKE MEDICATION YOU ASSHOLE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.