It’s Ok to Not Be Ok – I’m Not and You Don’t Have to Be Either
Warning: Brutal Honesty Ahead
I suffer from mental illness. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Even when I was very young and could not assign a name or an explanation to what I was feeling, looking back over four decades of my life, countless doctors visits and a third time in therapy, I can now identify it. I had and currently have depression and anxiety. Sometimes I have anxiety and depression and what I mean by that is that sometimes one is worse than the other but like some twisted peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they are always together.
While I didn't receive my first medical diagnosis until I was about 25, it was there. It had always been there. I can't tell you if it's genetic - my mother suffered from mental health issues - or if it's the result of trauma in my childhood, teen and adult years but I can tell you that I remember being 5 or 6 years old and feeling uncertain and afraid. There was very little stability in my home and there was a lot of insecurity, financially and emotionally. We moved... a lot. My mother and her husband fought... a lot. I can't remember where we lived from one grade to the next. I have lost track of the homes I lived in until I moved out on my own. I remember being 9 or 10 and hiding in bed. It was an escape. I would sleep all day on the weekends so I didn't have to face what I was feeling. It was the only coping mechanism I had at such an early age for a disease I didn't understand. I remember the weird butterflies that I would get in my stomach on the way to school functions that left me feeling like I wanted to melt into the seat of the car and just disappear. I didn't know I had social anxiety. I was sick and no one knew it. By 14 I had discovered just how intimately music could speak to my soul and this song screamed how I felt on the inside:
I would sing that song at the top of my lungs because for the first time, someone else was talking about what I felt even though I still didn't know what it was or how to articulate it. As I got older, I just thought everyone felt that way. I didn't know in my teens that most of the other kids didn't have intrusive thoughts that told them that the world would be better off without them but I had those thoughts. I have had those thoughts, some well into adulthood. I didn't know I was depressed. I didn't know that I isolated myself from everyone else around me, spending countless hours alone in my bedroom because I suffered from depression. I didn't know in my 20s that I was medicating my anxiety and depression with alcohol - or that I was on the path to becoming an alcoholic (I've been sober since 01.12.2013). I attribute my not knowing with a lack of honest, open conversation with my mother. She never told me about depression or anxiety even though I watched her suffer with it too. I saw her coping mechanisms but she never told me what it felt like, what to watch for or that it can be genetic and I may one day have it too. I didn't know when I had my daughter at age 20, that I was experiencing postpartum depression even though I struggled to get out of bed to take care of my beautiful child. I didn't know that every new mom doesn't curl up in the fetal position under a heap of blankets hysterical because the baby won't stop crying. In my late 20s, this song was what I felt...
It wasn't until I was 25 with a daughter in kindergarten, while I was trying to juggle motherhood, a marriage, two jobs and going back to school to get a college degree that I really started to feel like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and I was starting to fall apart at the seams. I couldn't get myself up to take care of the things that I knew I needed to like taking a shower, eating or feeding the dog and I would mentally obsess over things that were completely unimportant. Logically, I could see that but when it came to making those thoughts stop, I was powerless. I went to my family doctor and I was diagnosed for the first time with both depression and anxiety. I was prescribed medication and it probably would have worked but by this time, I was fully active in my alcoholism as well. I didn't drink everyday, but I would binge on the weekends to the point that I had 3 day hangovers. Little did I know that 1) I was making my depression worse because alcohol is a depressant and 2) the medication couldn't do it's job properly because of it. Also the medication affected my liver enzymes so my body couldn't properly process what I was drinking at the rate I was drinking it - because of that I would black out sooner. Clearly, the medicine had to go (This was not healthy thinking but this is where I was at the time.) Again in my early 30s I found myself back in the doctor's office and on (a different) medication but this time I added therapy to the mix. I had all of those old, icky feelings again and music still spoke to my soul. I thought once I started feeling better and once I later got sober (at 34) that I would be A-#1 OK! I had forgotten about the feelings I had as a little girl and teen and I just thought it was a "rough patch." This was my anthem at 30:
Fast forward to 40 and here we are - again. Earlier this year I started feeling it again. By all logical accounts, my life is wonderful. I married a good man who loves me. I have a good relationship with my daughter where we can talk about anything, including mental illness. I have loyal and caring friends. I am sober and I have the job of my dreams... I get to run the rock station but even with all of these wonderful things, here I am again. Since the end of March, I have been on 3 different medications trying to find one that will help without making me feel like a zombie. Ironically enough, it's the one that I stopped taking at 25 because of my drinking that works the best - now that I have put down the bottle. I am going to therapy again and sometimes the depression and anxiety are manageable and my day to day life isn't too bad. Sometimes though, sometimes it's enough to make me feel like I am drowning and that's where I've been for several months now.
If you live with depression and/or anxiety, you know what it feels like. If you don't, I'll try my best to explain. Imagine that you have no interest in the things that you love, no passion or zest for life and you feel like you are walking around dressed in one of those lead vests that they use at the dentist when they take x-rays while wearing a pair of glasses that are so dark, you can't see the sunshine and everything is cast in some strange mix of sepia and black and white. It's heavy. It's dark. It's uncomfortable. It's crippling and it's scary. It also leaves you with feelings of self-loathing and thoughts of "why can't I just get my sh*t together? Why can't I just be 'normal'? Why can't I just be happy like everyone else?" That's the depression.
Now, the anxiety that comes along with the depression (for me, this is different from my social anxiety that tells me that people are judging me, laughing at me and waiting for me to fail) whispers in your head that you can't let anyone know that you feel this way because they won't: understand you, love you, want to be around you or that they will abandon you because you'll be too much of a burden for them to bear and it's easier and best for them to just leave. So you put on your mask with the painted smile so no one knows. You can't let your boss see you cry at the office because they'll think they made a mistake putting you into the position to run things. You don't want to let your partner, friend, daughter... see you hurting because you know they can't fix it and you don't want them to feel helpless, sad or worse yet - you don't want them to feel sorry for you. You don't want anyone to know that you can't get yourself out of bed every day or that the way you feel on the inside doesn't match what you show them on the outside because then they might know you are an impostor, pretending to be ok when you're really just falling apart on the inside.
The very real part is that most people would never have any idea. I don't show anyone on social media what it looks like when I have a breakdown in the living room floor while putting on my shoes before work, complete with ugly crying. I don't talk publicly about feeling like my soul is tired or my inability to actually get myself out of bed 99% of the time because I'd rather just be asleep than face another day feeling the way I feel.
I am tired of pretending to be ok.
I am not ok and that is ok. It's ok because I am talking about it. It's ok because I am seeking help. It's ok because I'm not giving up. It's ok because it is an illness and there is nothing wrong with me. I am not bad or broken. I am sick. It's ok because it's not a secret. It's ok because I know I am not alone in this and it's ok because I want you to know it's ok to not be ok too. I want you to know that you're not alone. I've been thinking about the stigma associated with mental illness and it pisses me off. I'm tired of pretending that I am ok when I'm not. I'm tired of not talking about it and brushing it under the rug so no one knows. I want you to know so if you're going through it you're not alone but also because if you love someone who is going through it, you're not alone either. We are all in this together.
There are resources available if you need help with your mental health and I hope you'll use them so you aren't fighting a silent battle alone. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free and confidential hotline that is open 24 hours-a-day, 365 days a year and they offer referral and information services for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
**Music has always helped me feel understood. All of these songs have spoken to where I was at various phases of my life.