Let’s be honest, our society is not the most understating, accepting, or even educated when it comes to mental illness. Even typing “mental illness” in relation to myself is terrifying. At this point, 9 years later, I still think I am different from those suffering from mental illness. They have serious problems, mine is minor. But I am one of those people, and my problem isn’t minor.
My anxiety started the first semester of my first year of law school when I was 22 and continued into my second year until it wore me out and completely broke me down. I finally got to the point where I began having debilitating anxiety attacks. I didn’t want to leave my tiny studio apartment or deal with anyone. Everything around me was simply too much for me to handle. My law school friends probably had no idea why all of a sudden I had no interest in going out on Thursday nights for bar reviews, or out on the weekends. I was terrified. Anything could set me off.
With the start of the anxiety attacks I realized I needed help. I was desperate. I was lucky enough to find an amazing doctor that truly gave me my life back. He diagnosed me with generalized anxiety, which he thought was likely brought on by environmental stressors (law school) and gave me some medication. He let me know I could be treated. He gave me hope.
The medication was a lifesaver at first. I suddenly was back to my old self. I still had worries, but they didn’t consume me and I had control. My emotions weren’t always up and down, and I could handle stress without going over the edge. I continued my medication and seeing him for the rest of law school. After the bar exam, I didn’t think I needed the medication any more, and he agreed to let me start the process of weaning off the medication.
After I stopped the medication I actually still felt great. I thought the anxiety could just be chalked up to law school and I’d never have to deal with it again. Then I graduated from anxiety attacks to panic attacks. I don’t know why the anxiety came back, but it did 4 years ago. When the anxiety started to rear its ugly face back into my life I noticed my temper was shorter, I’d cry over nothing, and it took almost nothing to set me off into one of those panic attacks. The panic attacks were accompanied by physical reactions. I’d shake, I’d throw up, and I wouldn’t be able to catch my breath. I’ve spent more times than I would like to count curled up in the fetal position on the floor – wherever the panic attack overtook me. I’d start to see the warning signs that an attack was creeping up on me because I’d start to be out of breath. That could go on for days, and during those days, I lived in fear of when it would happen. Would I be in public? Would I have to rush home? Would David be around and have to witness it? Afterward, it would take me days to fully recover emotionally, and to physically be able to finally feel like I could catch my breath again.
I felt like I was suffocating slowly. All day, everyday I walked around with a pit of worry in my chest. I don’t know how else to describe it than a weight in the center of my core. Otherwise, my life was great, I had nothing to complain about. I was so happy. But it started to steal my happiness and I finally had to face the fact that I needed to go back on medication. I had to face the fact that my anxiety may stem from a chemical imbalance and not simply environmental factors like I previously thought in law school. Most importantly, I had to face that it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. And it isn’t.
I spent 3 years on various medications, trying different dosages, and didn’t experience the relief from my anxiety that I did when I first got on medication years earlier. The side effects were brutal and the relief was minimal. I gained 40 pounds, I’d sit in my doctor’s office hysterically crying because I’d stuck to strict meal plans and still continued to gain weight. Nothing I did could stop it. She told me it was one of the most common side effects from anxiety medication and there wasn’t’ really anything I could do to stop it while on the medication. More importantly, I also still suffered from anxiety and the medication barely took the edge off. I eventually reached the decision that the medication wasn’t worth the side effects and decided to get off of it last August.
Getting off the medication was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I went through a month of withdrawal symptoms while weaning off under the supervision of my doctor. For the first time in my life I felt a hopelessness and depression that I never knew was possible. Prior to this, I’d never been depressed and it was worse than I could have imagined. I spent most of that month in bed crying and feeling like I was going to die. I didn’t want to go out and live my life. I was in a really dark place.
Thankfully, after 4 weeks of pure hell, I started to come out of the black cloud. Now a year later, I honestly feel like I am back to my old self again. The me that existed before law school and the first bouts of anxiety. Instead of an SSRI or SSNI, I take 5HTP now. It’s a supplement and it works better for me than any of the medications in the last 3 years did. Amazingly, last week I realized that I don’t even think about anxiety anymore and I can barely remember what it feels like to have that pit of anxiety sitting in my chest all day every day. The fear that ruled my life for years doesn’t even enter my brain now. I’m not naieve. I’m not cure. I know the anxiety could come back at any time and this will likely be a lifelong struggle, but for now I am free of it. And I am happy.
I know many people may frown on getting this personal and discussing my mental health so openly on a public blog. The thing is, I don’t think I should have to be worried about that, or that any of us should be. I’m sick of the societal stigma applied to anxiety, depression, or any other form of mental illness, and those who suffer from it. It should be treated like any other illness. So many of us lead high stress lives, it’s no wonder anxiety and/or depression are so common now. It’s just a shame so many people are afraid to seek out help, because it can truly be life saving. My anxiety truly broke me and I don’t think I will ever be the same. I don’t think that is a bad thing though. Our struggles make us who we are, teach us how to be strong, show us what we are capable of. I’m thankful for those lessons now. I’m a work in progress.