A post very close to my heart. I’m a huge advocate for those suffering mental illness and them getting not only the right treatment but the very best support.
I should start by saying I am not a medical expert nor do I have the little piece of paper to tell me I have studied psychology or psychiatry for 6 years. What I do have is firsthand experience of what it feels like to suffer from both anxiety and depression and what it is like to support someone suffering from anxiety and depression. We have many fantastic psychologists and other medical professionals and personally the ones I have found to be the BEST are those that have actually been on their own mental health journey. Why? They understand what it feels like. No book, no lecture, no exam and no degree will adequately explain what it truly feels like.
Most first world countries are strongly influenced by the pharmaceutical companies and as someone who prefers a more holistic approach, this frustrates me no end. My general practitioner who I have seen for many years supports natural remedies if she feels they will be of benefit and I greatly appreciate that. There are still too many doctors quick to hand over a prescription. Although there is certainly a place for medications used to treat mental illness, there needs to be a more integrated approach. Medication does not work for many and causes more problems for some, so we definitely need more options and a system that promotes the many alternate treatments.
I would like to explain how it feels to have anxiety and depression- my personal account. I’m not talking about some stress and a bit of temporary anxiety or feeling down in the dumps but real medically diagnosed anxiety and depression. Some people think that depression is sadness and yes there’s definitely a component of sadness but it’s so much more than that. It’s numbness, it’s exhaustion, it’s despair, it’s darkness, it’s overwhelming, it’s being a shadow of your former self. Your sleeping pattern is a mess, either sleeping too much or not sleeping at all. Your diet is terrible, either eating too much, eating unhealthily or no appetite whatsoever. I lost nearly 10 kilos in 3 weeks when I suffered. Your thinking is distorted and your concentration is non existent. At your very worst, you literally cannot see any way out. There are times you want to cry but the numbness prevents it and there are times you just sob uncontrollably.
Anxiety takes on many forms from generalised, to panic disorder, OCD, PTSD and phobias. I suffered generalised with panic attacks. Now think of something that has just frightened you and you get that fight or flight sensation but as soon as the threat is gone you go back to your calm state. Now imagine that sensation intensified and not subsiding, so you are in this hyper, alert, panicked state ongoing. Then on top of this you get panic attacks which are even more terrifying but thankfully shorter lived because you honestly feel like you are dying! Your heart rate is constantly elevated and you can feel it thumping in your chest, I recall mine getting up to around 170 beats per minute during a panic attack.
Again sleep pattern is affected as you are literally too wound up to sleep and I again lose my appetite and lose weight quickly. You can’t sit still. Thoughts are flying through your head, your legs are like jelly, you often shake, you feel nauseous and that at any minute your heart will just stop because surely the speed it’s going cannot be sustained. You are clammy, you are sweaty, your mouth is dry and there’s this impending sensation of doom. You can get dizzy and your vision is distorted. You feel like you cannot get a breath. You feel like you cannot swallow. Sometimes you faint. Sometimes you vomit. Sometimes you hyperventilate. For some it triggers frustration and anger. It is a myriad of the most unpleasant and at times frightening sensations.
Handling one of these conditions in isolation is hard enough but sadly, often times you get the double whammy. Now you have two conditions that cause opposing symptoms in your body and the best analogy of this I have heard is ” some days, I feel everything at once, other days I feel nothing at all. I don’t know what’s worse drowning beneath the waves, or dying from the thirst”. You get to a point of utter desperation to feel better. You look around and perceive everyone else as normal and yourself as crazy. Your whole view of the world is altered, diminished even. You don’t want to go anywhere in case you have a panic attack and make a fool of yourself. You don’t have the energy or the motivation to lift yourself out of bed some days so the thought of actually leaving the house and talking to people is something you can’t even contemplate.
A comment I have heard many times is “I don’t understand/know why anyone would hurt themselves or want to end their own life”. As I sit here having not suffered these illnesses for many years I too find it hard to fathom, however, what we need to understand is the thought process of a very depressed person is significantly altered and different to ours. This is an illness, not a mood or a bad day or week. Sufferers need professional help as a first step, to get them to a point where they can start to help themselves. It’s not a one shoe fits all strategy as not everyone responds to the same treatment/support so it’s very difficult. Having dealt with the mental healthcare system in this country and trying to get the appropriate support is also not easy, in fact it was a bloody nightmare and if you don’t have money or private health insurance, you are stuck relying on the public system which is pretty appalling.
I would also like to see a better understanding within society of mental illness. There are so many things we can do as individuals to help ourselves when suffering BUT first we need to get the right help to get us to that crucial point. Telling someone having a full blown panic attack to calm down and take deep breaths is counter productive- they are in full fight or flight mode. Suggesting to someone with clinical depression that they should think positively is counter productive, their thinking is impaired. When someone is a bit stressed and anxious during the day absolutely some deep breaths, a walk or a little time out/quick meditation will work wonders. When someone is a bit flat and moody thinking positively and popping on some happy music will work a treat. We just need to be careful and ensure those who are suffering deeply are supported appropriately and remember to respect what they are feeling and never assume you know what they are going through.
It’s been many years since I have personally suffered but I remember the feeling vividly because it is so very dark and scary. Watching and supporting a close family member through it was one of the hardest things I have done but the amazing thing is there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is an incredible life to live with all its blessings and happiness once you get the right help. There are some wonderful therapists out there to guide and support you and once you start to feel a little better, you can start healing yourself more and more. Diet, exercise, reading, learning, meditation, positive affirmations, writing, music and whatever else lifts you will get you feeling better much quicker once you are in the headspace to do these things.
If you are suffering please don’t ever think you are alone. It’ not always easy finding the right person to help you but once you do, you won’t look back. Understand that your pain is valid and do not let ignorance or others judgement stop you or delay you getting the help that you need. We have come a long way with the many and varied support areas but we still have a long way to go. Lastly know that it’s the illness affecting your thoughts and it’s temporary, it’s always temporary. I am an example of someone who battled these insidious illnesses and came out the other side and you are no different, just be patient and kind to yourself. It is not a weakness and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Just because you cannot see mental illness like you see a broken bone, doesn’t mean it’s not as detrimental and devastating to an individual or family. The strongest people are not those who show their strength in front of the world but those who fight and win those internal battles that others know nothing about. Respect and love to anyone working hard to conquer their demons, you are an absolute warrior!