Mental Illness: Reality Check

Having a mental illness is a lot like having chronic back pain. The pain is always in the back of your mind, sometimes it paralyzes you to the point of immobility. Other times you’re able to school yourself to resist the pain and push through and sometimes, you feel as though you could almost forget that it’s even there to begin with.

Think of it this way, you start doing things differently because of your back pain. It might be subconscious, it might not. You’re not really to blame for this either – you’re just trying to avoid the pain that you remember from your low points. The pain that makes it difficult for you to even get out of bed, let alone do things other than wallowing. You remember how bad it was, how desperately you just wanted it to stop, to not feel it anymore, and you’d do pretty much anything to avoid it.

Slowly but surely the sphere of things that you feel comfortable with shrinks.

The problem with mental illness is that, your triggers – whatever they may be – do not appear to you with the same clarity that a physical illness benefits from. So you walk around confused and hyperaware – to make sure you’re not caught off guard. Something like a panic disorder could just set you off randomly, as your brain disproportionately exaggerates the danger of a situation you’re in. Post Traumatic Stress triggers could be set off by a particularly violent scene in the middle of a cinema. However, it is depression that aligns best with my chronic back pain analogy.  Although chronic back pain only has the ability to confine you to your room (at worst), depression follows you around like a dark cloud – ensuring that you stay trapped inside your own mind.

Dealing with a mental illness usually progresses in phases.

The first usually in my experience being denial.

I was fourteen years old when I had a panic attack for the first time.  I was crouched in a bathroom cubicle willing myself to pull some air into my lungs. I could feel myself getting progressively more dizzy, the stall seeming to get blurrier by the minute and no amount of water could alleviate the heat flashes. I also remember sweating, during sub zero temperatures. I hadn’t even thought that was possible until that moment in time. Most of all however, I remember feeling terrified. I remember thinking I was going to die in a small bathroom cubicle in a high school, and that would be it.

I had missed the class I had stepped out of, but the lump in my throat had subsided, and while my eyes were tear ridden and partially swollen, the suffocation had left its hold on me for the most part. I had landed myself in my very first detention, promptly after that and was left vaguely with the sense that I was descending into a spiral of craziness.

It might even sound like melodrama to some – and at the time I did feel I was blowing my situation out of proportion. I didn’t know what was going on, and the thought of figuring it out wasn’t appealing to me. So I quietly swallowed the bitter aftertaste left behind by a panic attack and tried to repress the memory of it ever happening.

Thus begins the second phase – deterioration. Where slowly, but surely your illness seeps into all aspects of your life – be it work, school or play.

Anxiety was more or less my perpetual state by the time I was sixteen. I kept suffering from panic attacks, which only increased after my childhood best friend passed away. I wasn’t as great a student anymore and I no longer enjoyed much of anything.  Social interactions brought with them a new found fatigue. Anything that I lacked complete control over had the power to make me feel unreasonably anxious. If that sounds irrational to you, that’s because it is. Disorders that induce panic are irrational, and any person with such a disorder will tell you the same – that they know.

It is this irrationality that leads you to an almost infuriating domino effect. Everything slowly starts to crumble – your health, your self-esteem.  You find fault within yourself. You’ve been groomed to perceive this as a personal and moral weakness – so you fault yourself for a lack of control over your emotions.

The illness is intangible – all in your head, so it is not real and therefore it is not a problem. And if you somehow fail to find fault in yourself for a problem you cannot control, worry not – the rest of the world will not fail to remind you.  

This is where we allow the deterioration to continue and so one enters the isolation phase. “Get over it”, “stop being weak”, and “you’re looking for attention”, are some of the few words that have been hurled at everyone trying to cope with a mental disorder. Believing that you are truly making a mountain out of a molehill – you withdraw. When you do that, the only company you have is every bad thought you’ve ever had about yourself and with your brain reiterating those thoughts to you every moment of every day – some succumb.

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