Shut Up, Stigma. We’re Talking About Mental Illness.

I had my first panic attack on Saturday, March 17th.  It was around 2:30 a.m., and I had just gotten home from the hospital.

At the time, I was attempting to take a shower.  I had blood running down my arms from the multiple IV lines that had just been removed, and I needed to wash off the odor and nastiness of being sick 40-to-50-something times during the last twenty-four hours.  We still didn’t have answers regarding my medical condition at that point (we were about five weeks into the process), and I had gotten sick on the side of the road four more times between our house and the hospital on the way home.

I was sick and scared and honestly thought I was in a long, slow process of dying, so it’s not really surprising that the panic attack hit me.

But my body started shaking uncontrollably, and tears were pouring out of my head at a lightning-quick rate, and I couldn’t breathe anymore, so I understandably became terrified.  I had never, ever experienced anything like it before.  I fell over in the shower and couldn’t get back up, and I also couldn’t yell for Erin because I couldn’t even breathe.  Fortunately, he came in after hearing something odd, and then he literally had to dry me off and carry me to the bed because I couldn’t do it myself.  It took about 30 solid minutes of deep breathing and “focus on me” and back-rubbing to get me calmed down enough to even speak.

In that moment, we had no idea what to do.  And when it happened again a few hours later, and twice more the next day, and once again before my doctor’s appointment on Monday morning, we knew something besides my intestinal issues was wrong.

That Monday, we found out from the doctor that I was having panic attacks…pretty significant ones…due to the unknown nature of my intestinal illness at the time (that we now know is PI-IBS).  He gave me some breathing techniques and grounding techniques and anxiety medication.

Those pills and techniques got me through some of the hardest days of my life thus far.

And sometimes they still get me through, because my days haven’t really gotten a whole lot easier.  I’m figuring out my new life and getting used to it…but I still have panic attacks.  And although I understand them better, they are just as terrifying now as they were the first time.

So where am I going with this?

Because of the recent events regarding Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I want to take a minute and address the mental side of my condition, as well as mental illness across the board:

If you don’t currently suffer from some kind of mental illness but you know someone who does, let me tell you something extremely important.  You don’t really know what true mental illness feels like until you’ve been there.  It isn’t just a sad day.  It isn’t logical or rational.  To give you an example of how unexpected and illogical it can be, I went into a full-blown panic attack last night because I was trying to make my grocery list and got a text message at the same time.  I felt completely overwhelmed, and at the same time, I knew that it made no sense to feel that way about a menu and a text…but I couldn’t help it.  I had been under a pretty significant amount of stress through the work week, and I was having to address my specific and complicated dietary needs at the time, so those just happened to be my triggers in the moment.  Mental.  Illness.  Doesn’t.  Always.  Make.  Sense.  So what can you do to help your loved one in those difficult days?

  • Instead of telling them that they need to just “think happy thoughts” or “pray harder” or “avoid the medicines altogether because they might become addictive”, maybe you should take those five minutes of your time to ask the person how they are doing (really doing) instead.  Don’t take “fine” for an answer.
  • Even better, take those five minutes to ask that person what they need prayers for in that moment…and then actually pray for it!
  • If you know someone is suffering from mental illness and you start noticing changes in their behavior and/or they talk to you about suicide, by all means take it seriously.  Please and thank you.  Back to that statement of rationality a few sentences ago – mental illness doesn’t always make sense.  Call your doctor or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) and get help for your loved one.
  • Don’t always assume that “happy” people are ok.  If you had seen me at work on Thursday handing out giveaways and talking to 400-ish coworkers at an event, you never would’ve guessed that I had a care in the world…much less a panic attack that night.  Some of the happiest people I know deal with some of the heaviest loads.  Check on the happy people you know.  They may be fine, but they may not.  Your encouragement and support could be the lifesaver that they need.
  • Show some compassion.  You wouldn’t get on Facebook and lecture someone with cancer for their chemo treatments, so stop lecturing people on what they should/shouldn’t do regarding treatments for their mental illness.  If you haven’t been in their shoes, you don’t know.
  • Listen to this song, “Inner Demons” by Julia Brennan.  It’s one of the most accurate representations of mental illness that I’ve ever heard, and I love it.

Now.

If you are suffering from a chronic illness and it leads you to have panic attacks or depression, those are not a result of you being weak.  If you have PTSD, it is not a result of you being weak.  If you have mental illness due to a chemical imbalance, it is not a result of you being weak.

And if you are suffering from panic attacks, depression, PTSD, or any other form of mental illness and you decide to get help for it, it is a result of you being one tough son-of-a-gun.  Trust me, friend.  You are strong.  You are courageous.  You are willing to confront the stigma and live your best life.  You are beautiful.  And if anyone tells you otherwise, go right ahead and send them my way.  I got you, boo.

2 Replies to “Shut Up, Stigma. We’re Talking About Mental Illness.”

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