Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday the 13th: From Nightmare to Gratitude: My Mental Illness Story

I consider myself a strong person and not only because I have fought cystic fibrosis since the day that I was born. Don’t get me wrong. Cystic fibrosis is a devastating disease. It is not, however; the only disease that I face on a given day. Like one in four American adults in a given year, I fight mental illness. When most people think of someone having to fight a disease, physical diseases like cancer, heart disease or diabetes probably enter their minds. In my opinion, the struggle against mental illness requires just as much strength to survive as any physical disease. In many instances, suffering from mental illness coincides with battling a physical disease. My emotional enemies are high anxiety and clinical depression. These feelings don’t just arise when times are at their worst. Take what happened to me a few weeks ago as an example.

The disease that is often forgotten

I was at Alpharetta’s North Park. Wish for Wendy, the event my family and I started to fight cystic fibrosis, raised nearly $600K, a record-breaking fundraising performance. People expected me to do cartwheels and celebrate like I’d just won the seventh game of the World Series, but it’s when those final numbers are announced and the day turns to night, my feelings turn to something a bit unexpected. At least it’s unexpected to those around me. To a person who is well aware of the fight with depression and anxiety, this is just another day dealing with the struggle.

As the event was ending and friends and family who I’d seen and talked to throughout the day began departing, my thoughts turned to despair. It occurred to me that the next few months would be cold and dark due to the time change. Late fall and winter have never been my favorite seasons. Late fall is when I went to Ridgeview, a mental institution, 6 years ago. Winter is when my CF takes an ugly turn and usually requires IV’s.

My family at this year's Wish for Wendy

That Saturday evening, I found myself walking up to the vacant auction room as the rest of the attendees settled down to watch the semifinals and finals of our tournament. That night should have been a time to celebrate but thanks to anxiety and depression, it was a night to cope with my issues. It was a night to quietly sit there for five to ten minutes and calm myself by repeating the serenity prayer and meditating. Nights like these are agonizing for those of us who fight mental illness and I’m pretty sure it’s even more so for those that love us. These are what I call my “moments of darkness.”

These moments are horrible. I’ll be sitting alone contemplating death. I’m not considering suicide rather I’m thinking what death must be like. The lights and television are usually off. It’s the middle of the day. I feel like I can’t breathe and for once it’s not CF-related. All I think about is my life ending and living in complete darkness for the rest of eternity. As my pulse races, I begin to sweat. These “moments” rarely if ever occur in the spring, summer or early fall. They occur frequently as the days grow shorter from November to February.

My goal in this blog post is to show my readers what it feels like to battle anxiety and depression. I think most people think of anxiety as a quick moment where you’re worried about getting a test back and depression is just being sad about something. That’s part of it but not nearly all of it.

I believe some of my anxiety stems from growing up with cystic fibrosis. My life has been measured by tests since I was a little kid. None of them determining A’ or B’s on a report card. Each one instead determining the next step in my care.

I am open about my mental health issues. I see a psychiatrist bi-annually, a therapist three to four times a year and practice meditation when it’s needed. I am not ashamed of my emotional situation. As someone who deals with physical illness as well, I honestly don’t see much of a difference admitting I have depression versus saying I have cystic fibrosis. I believe that being transparent encourages others to ask questions, gain knowledge and perhaps gain insight into what it’s like to suffer from mental health issues.

I'm open about my mental illness because hiding it only brought me more issues.

How does one know he or she has a problem with depression and/or anxiety? Read the question below and choose your answer. I’ll then explain what my answer is and how it reveals my issues with mental illness.

Question: In the next week, you can have the following happen:

A. You have the best week of your life. Absolutely nothing goes wrong.
B. Nothing exciting happens. Things remain status quo.

My guess is that most “normal” people would choose “A.” That would have been my choice for the longest time, however; that is no longer an option for me.

When I was diagnosed with clinical depression and high anxiety, I learned that the only way I could survive on this earth is to live as even keel as possible and therefore I cannot choose “A.” While nothing bad may happen to me for an entire week, things can only go down from there hence why my only choice would have to be “B.” For me, going through highs and lows is very unhealthy. It was when people put me on a pedestal and lauded at my achievements that I had the tendency to feel invincible and arrogant. I could do no wrong. Addicts can’t live in those circumstances.

I am an addict.

My sobriety date is November 13, 2009. Today in fact is my six-year sobriety anniversary. It’s a time to give thanks but not to get wrapped up in celebration.

It was a Friday the 13th that I first stepped foot in the Ridgeview Mental Institution. Sobriety is not just about drugs and alcohol. It can be about almost anything. If there’s something that constantly nags at you and pushes you to live an unhealthy lifestyle; that is an addiction.

When I was an outpatient at Ridgeview, I witnessed all sorts of additions: drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation, etc. I learned some things about myself too that I probably would not have learned otherwise. I have an inner-arrogance about me that is very dangerous. When good things happen to me, they build into great things in my mind. While most would probably not be too concerned with that, please understand that the opposite happens as well. When bad things happen to me, they turn into extremely horrible things in my mind. I would go from being an egocentric maniac to believing I was the lowest form of scum on earth in a matter of seconds. I would go from feeling invincible to feeling as if I was the poster boy for Murphy’s Law. As my therapist explained it, I lived in extremes. I went years not being able to cope.

To me, the definition of anxiety and depression is not feeling nervous nor is it feeling sad. Experiencing these two sensations is like feeling everything at all times. When things are good, the problems tend to mask themselves but when things are bad, the problems are as visible as a huge monster cornering me in a small room.

Now let’s revisit a topic I mentioned earlier. Does cystic fibrosis cause my anxiety and depression? I can’t know for sure but I know it has not been a factor in fixing it. Having to remember pills and being able to deal with bad doctor’s appointments were things I had to deal with growing up. Notice I said “deal with” rather than “cope with.” Imagine having a disease in which your life expectancy was that of a teenager. Imagine having to get your care done at a children’s hospital because for the longest time adult clinics did not exist due to lack of need because patients generally did not live to see adulthood. Imagine a disease which requires administering hours of treatments and taking copious amounts of pills just to attempt to avoid regular hospitalizations. For most, including myself, it’s a devastating feeling to deal with 365 days a year.

The reason for my anxiety and depression?

Over the years, I’ve developed a skillset to help me cope with depression and anxiety. For one, I repeat the serenity prayer during the worst of times but also when things could not be better. I’ve learned to call my sponsor if I encounter a situation in which my sobriety could be at risk. Finally, I’ve learned that I’ll never be a “recovering” addict because my issues with depression and anxiety will never go away. I can cope with them now but I will never say that my problems are behind me. They are constantly with me and to ignore that is forgetting everything I learned from my days at Ridgeview.

Thank you for reading and if you do feel like you have an issue with depression, anxiety or any form of mental illness, seek professional help. Getting assistance for emotional issues doesn’t mean you’re weak.

On the contrary, it demonstrates your strength.

Live your dreams and love your life.


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