The Stigma of Mental Illness

While my intent with this blog was to focus on homeschooling and my endeavors with it, I feel compelled to post about something that needs to be addressed.  That is, the stigma of mental illness.  I, myself, have PTSD and panic disorder.

Ever since I was little, I have been plagued with anxiety.  I didn’t have my first full-blown panic attack until I was 23, and my father had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  Through the weeks and months that followed, my anxiety was managed by medicine.  When I felt like I was able to control it myself, I stopped taking medicine and did remarkably well.  I had been to therapy, and learned self-help strategies.

Fast forward a few years.  My husband and I had tried for years to have children.  We had suffered three miscarriages.  The stress of it all had left me in a state of anxiety again.  I was unable to sleep.  Caffeine had become my best friend.  I remember someone at my school asking me how I was able to function without any sleep, and the truth is, I wasn’t functioning.  Around this time, my brother became very sick.  He had suffered a brain aneurism, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough to handle it.  I could feel the panic coming back, and it did.

It reared it’s ugly head, this time to the extent of me not being able to leave my house.  I had developed agoraphobia.  Luckily, it was during the summer, and it didn’t interfere with my work.  I started therapy again, and was determined that I was not going to take medicine.  Being in the car caused me to have multiple panic attacks.  Even a short trip had me feeling as if I was losing control.  Therapy was helping, but not enough.  I remember sitting in the therapists office and telling her that my every thought was plagued by anxiety.  It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up, and the last thing that I thought of when I went to bed.  It was determined then that I would need to go back on medicine.

For four years, I was on the lowest possible dose I could take.  I had a life again, and I was happy.  My husband and I adopted our three children.  Our lives were heading in the direction that we both had always dreamed.  Then, one cold January day of this year, I had a massive panic attack standing in my classroom.  It was one of the worse ones that I had ever had.  I could feel the icy fear in every part of my body.  When I was finally able to leave my classroom, I hid in the bathroom and called my husband.

If you have never had a panic attack, you could never understand the feeling.  It is the worse fear of your life, multiplied by about 100.  I disassociate, meaning, it feels as if I am watching my body through someone else’s life.  I can’t sit still, I pace or run; my mind races.  I cry, and then afterwards, I become severely depressed.  I feel helpless and hopeless.  I feel like a burden to everyone, and I feel like I am crazy.

My medicine was increased, and I am finally (months later) starting to feel some sort of peace.  I have stopped working for a while, because added stress can cause it to flair up.  My life has changed drastically in the last several months, but not necessarily for the worse.  It was through this process that I am able to homeschool my kids, and it has been one of the best decisions we have ever made.  For our family, it works.

So here comes the stigma.  People assume that since they have panic attacks, they know what it is like for me.  While they may have some small inkling, they can never fully understand.  Nobody can understand how it affects someone else.  Not even those who suffer from it, because it affects everyone differently.  If you have had a panic attack, I can guarantee that yours is not like mine, just like mine is not like yours.  Think of it like a heart attack.  There are so many ways that a heart attack can present itself.  Some feel like a pressure on their chest, while others have jaw pain or tingling arms.  Our bodies are unique, therefor things can present themselves differently.  Panic stems from the brain.  My brain has suffered different traumas than yours.  These traumas have caused my brain to “rewire” itself.  They have changed the chemical balance in my brain.  Therefore, my brain is literally wired different than yours.  Your panic attacks are not the same as my panic attacks.  They affect us differently.

So, why am I writing this?  Some people are able to go through life unaffected by trauma.  They can experience it, and it has no detrimental effect on them.  They get sad, but they are able to adjust and move on.  But, there are some of us, who experience trauma and it changes everything about us.  My first trauma occurred at the age of three.  Three-years old.  When my brain was forming, I experienced a trauma so bad that it changed everything about me.  This trauma, coupled with other factors, made me a different person.  Sometimes, I wonder who I would have been.  I wonder how my life could have been different.

Trauma followed me from then on.  Every death of a family member or friend.  The house fire that took everything I owned in the 10th grade.  The flood that left me homeless for months when I was on summer vacation from college.  The infertility that I have suffered.  The miscarriages.  The illnesses of my close family.  All of these things have changed who I am and how I respond to trauma.

My panic attacks are not a sign of weakness.  They aren’t something that I can get over, and telling me to do that WILL NOT help.  It only makes it worse.  It reminds me that there is something wrong that I can’t fix. If you want to help me, be supportive.  Tell me you love me, let me talk to you with out judgement.  Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real and isn’t extremely difficult.

In the news, in the last two weeks, I have seen two celebrities who have died from apparent suicide.  I have heard many people utter the same phrase “What did they have to be depressed about?”  In out materialistic society, we seem to assume that people who have everything in our eyes, have no reason to be depressed.  Having everything does not mean that you can’t be depressed.  We do not know their battles.  What if these people came to you for help, and were met with “what do you have to be depressed about?”  Would that be helpful?  Would that suddenly make them feel better?  No, it would make it worse.

Depression is caused from a chemical imbalance in the brain.  It is no different from any other illness.  Would you tell a diabetic they need to get over it, and ridicule them for taking insulin?  No.  Because it is an illness and not something that can be helped.   Depression, anxiety, PTSD, panic disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar — all of these are an illness and trust me, those who have it, wish they could just “get over it”.

We need to end the stigma.  We need to stop assuming that people who appear to have everything have no reason to be depressed.  We need to stop telling people to “get over it”, and start finding ways to help them.  We need to stop comparing our anxiety and panic to other peoples.  We need to be supportive, and loving.  We need to reach out to those who have it, and offer to help.  Not distancing yourself from them at times when they need you most.  A text, a phone call, a visit could have been the difference for some of these people.  While I have never been so depressed that I have wanted to end it all, I know that there are millions of people who have felt that.  I don’t need to understand why, I just need to understand love.

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