Mental illness.

Why do we dance around it, not just conceptually, but even the phrase itself? We treat it like an outcast, a friend we don’t want to show up to the party – and naively hope that we if we don’t invite them, they won’t show up. And yet, they’re probably the only guaranteed guest at any gathering over 15 people.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I feel compelled to share my own story. Not because I’m proud of it (though I’m certainly not ashamed), but because I am a perfect example of exactly how ruthless and non-discriminatory mental illnesses can be. Hopefully someone who has gone through or is going through something similar can find some comfort in my story.

I graduated in May 2014. Throughout college I was known as an energizer bunny – the girl who did it all and had a smile on her face, too. Figuring the real world could wait, I decided to take some “me time” by way of a solo backpacking trip to Southeast Asia. It was the greatest summer of my life, filled with life-altering experiences and new (but permanent) best friends. I had the summer of a lifetime, but by the end (about 2 months) I was exhausted. Not the normal kind of exhausted, either. For the first few weeks, I brushed off the 18 hours of sleeping each day, brain fog, dizzy spells, diarrhea and constipation as readjusting and got even more excited to head back to family.

On my flight from Singapore to London, I had a panic attack. Having never experienced one before, I had no idea what was happening and honestly thought I was going to die in the airplane. I had all the aforementioned symptoms, but worse, and this time I felt like my throat was closing and I couldn’t breathe. There were 11 hours left on my flight. As I later told my family… if I could’ve opened up the window and jumped out, I would have.

After the initial attack, I felt weird and generally anxious. Throughout the next couple weeks in Europe with my family, I went through waves of pure exhaustion and fatigue (out of nowhere). I hoped/assumed that getting home would fix everything. For a few days, I felt great. I was so freaking happy to be back in my bed, with all the modern conveniences that America has to offer, like toilet paper and tampons (no I’m not kidding. Asia does not have either of these things.) But after a week or two, I had another panic attack. And this time, I didn’t feel okay after. I was still sleeping 18 hours a day and taking naps every half hour, despite having so much to do. I couldn’t find the mental motivation to continue, and the few times I did, I didn’t have the stamina to do anything for more than an hour. The panic attacks became more frequent, eventually landing me in the ER (as anyone who’s ever had one will tell you – you actually think you’re dying), where the doctor confirmed that all my vitals and basic bloodwork were normal.

After months of getting worse and worse, I prayed a doctor would find something – even if it was something awful like cancer – just so I could have an answer then be treated and cured. The day the doctor called me back to say everything was absolutely normal in the 20 or so blood tests we’d run was the worst day of my life. I lost it.

Everything was NOT normal. Here I was, stuck with some unknown, undiscoverable issue. Panic attacks shot up to a daily occurence, and when I wasn’t in one I was panicked and paralyzed by fear of the next one. I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped seeing friends. I couldn’t work. I had no life. People called and texted and asked about me – “where’s Sarah? Is Sarah coming out? Sarah, are you okay?” – but I couldn’t bring myself to tell most of them the truth. 

I was off my rocker and felt like I was headed straight to the looney bin. I slept even more. I got angry at everyone for everything. I hid the knives from my kitchen because I was scared I would look at them and get the crazy idea to use them on myself. I knew I wouldn’t, but the fact that the thought crossed my mind scared the bejeezus out of me. I was a foreigner in my own body; a shell of the Sarah I had known for 22 years. The depression kicked in REALLY hard at this point, so I agreed to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety.

Not one for medication, I refused antidepressants and saved my Klonopin (similar to Xanax) for panic attacks only. I felt hopeless and started troubleshooting on my own. I quit my birth control, began meditating, and added magnesium, B6, B12, Calcium, vitamin D, and turmeric supplements to my life. This helped incrementally (and later I discovered that they helped monstrously) but they were not a miracle, and I was still very much so struggling to function.

I woke up every morning wondering if it it was going to be a good day, and went to bed thinking about how good days just didn’t exist anymore.

My psychiatrist recommended a therapist who specialized in panic disorder and OCD. Since I spent all of my day worrying and dealing with obsessive compulsions to google my condition and self-diagnose as a way to temporarily calm myself down, I knew it was the right move. My first session was ROUGH. For the first time I acknowledged my deeply rooted fear that I might be stuck like this forever, out loud to a total stranger nonetheless.

Throughout this time, the dizzy spells persisted the most. They would come on fast and hard without a trigger, sometimes lasting for hours, other times lasting for days. My hearing would go in and out, the floors and walls looked like they were breathing, I couldn’t think straight, and I felt unsteady and off balance as if I were going to pass out. At one point during a session, my therapist casually commented that sometimes high-strung people experience panic disorder and OCD due to an infection. Immediately, I scheduled an appointment ENT to make sure I didn’t have a weird southeast Asian ear infection or something.

I owe this ENT my life. She listened to every word I said, asked me hundreds of questions, and eventually, found the root of the problem. Turns out, a nasty staph infection had taken up residence in my sinus cavities AND I had an intestinal parasite. From the looks of it, she reasoned they’d been there for months. Now, a lot of people don’t know that when you have an untreated infection, often times your body turns on and starts fighting itself. That is exactly what happened to me.

After the first round of antibiotics, my issues were dramatically reduced. They were still there and still kind of ruining my life, but for the first time in four months, I saw a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. After that, I focused all my attention on my health and to finding things that made me happy. Little by little, I came out of my shell. Still to this day, I have some residual anxiety and am a bit high-strung regarding my body and my health. But if a doctors visit each month gives me the reassurance I need to keep moving forward, so be it. (Thanks for the health insurance, Dad!)

So that’s my story. I tried to condense four months of hell down into as brief of a description as I could. Now onto the good stuff, and the things I want to emphasize…

1. Depression is different for everyone. Some people become dark, violent, suicidal even, while some isolate themselves, and still others go out and go wild. Depression does not look a certain “way”.

2. It is a mental illness. Causes of mental illnesses run the gamut. Sometimes it is situational due to a traumatic experience, other times it kind of comes out of nowhere due to a chemical imbalance or infection. Sometimes, individuals suffer chronically and indefinitely. Most importantly, it does not discriminate because of a good job, or an emotionally healthy household. It is, and I can say this with firsthand experience, the biggest asshole of all assholes. And an asshole that most people meet at some point in their lives.

3. For me, the hardest part – harder than the depression itself – was coming to terms with the guilt I felt. Objectively, my life is great on all accounts. I know that now, and I knew that then. So why was this happening to me? I felt like a fake, a poser, like somehow my depression wasn’t a valid thing and I should be embarrassed of it, which in turn made me even more depressed. But the thing about mental illness is that it doesn’t care about your great job with its great salary. It does not filter out those who have incredible relationships with God. It can affect your parents, your classmate, your siblings, your spouse. Anyone. It does not discriminate.

4. I spent the vast majority of college shifting gears at a sprinters pace between school, extracurriculars, and my social life. As most will tell you, just maintaining all three isn’t easy. Maxing out all three, as I most often managed to do, meant I was running on five hours of sleep, a lot of caffeine, and a hint residual vodka from the night before. I rarely slowed down for anything other than a blinding hangover or my annual bout of bronchitis. Despite that, I felt great. But now, after everything I’ve been through  I’m convinced I wouldn’t have known if I wasn’t feeling great. Why? Because I never slowed down enough to have a dialogue with myself, to really think about my mental, emotional, or physical health.

Similarly, learn to listen to your gut. I knew something was wrong with me, the doctors just couldn’t find it initially. It was easy to be disheartened and frustrated and feel helpless, but as my mom constantly reminded me, I needed to be my own champion and take responsibility of my health. You do too. Have a physical check-up and make sure everything is okay with you internally. Not only does it help quell anxiety, but it might uncover the missing piece to your puzzle. More importantly, take care of yourself physically. Eat well, workout, stay hydrated, and pause now and then to really listen to what your body says. Removing any of those variables from the equation can make a bad problem worse.

To those of you currently dealing with depression or another mental illness, the only thing I can say is this: talk about it. Put it out there. You don’t have to talk about it with complete strangers or all the time to the point of burdening people around you with every detail of what’s happening, but it’s important to make it known. In time, it won’t feel weird to tell your best friend or mother that you’re feeling particularly bad, or that you feel like you’re scared of the knives in your kitchen, or whathave you. Eventually, it will feel normal for you and your support system to talk candidly about it. And for someone who is struggling with a mental illness, that sense of normalcy is everything.

Talking about it is even bigger than that, though. It helps pave the way for frank conversations with those around you. Too often, we treat mental illness with white gloves – something that is weird and off-limits. But if you open up and share your story with those around you, they know you’re someone they can do the same to. I was shocked by the number of people – sorority sisters, family members, friends-of-friends – who crawled out of the woodwork to share their own mental illness stories with me. Even more shocking was who these people were and what they did. They were normal, accomplished, healthy adults. They held big-kid jobs as consultants and artists and accountants and bartenders. And they were, or are, sick, too. I found that oddly comforting, and at the same time, very alarming. Until the moment they opened up to me, I never would have imagined them with any issue of such magnitude.

I consider it a valuable lesson learned.

I was lucky. My family is open and supportive, and took what I was going through very seriously. After months of doctors, medicine, and therapists, I healed. That never would have happened if I hadn’t come right out with it and admitted to derailing. My friends did their best to understand, which I love them for. (I’m thankful that most of them couldn’t fully get what I was going through, because in order to do that, they would have had to have gone through it themselves, and I don’t wish that on anyone.) If you do not have a similarly amazing support system, find one. A support group, doctors, etc. Find people who take you and your problems seriously.

If you want to know my biggest piece of advice for dealing with someone who is depressed or affected by another mental illness, here it is:

Just listen to them. I’m reminded of an episode of Parks and Rec when Anne is pregnant with Chris’s baby and annoyed that he always trying to come up with solutions to the issues she complains about. All she wants is for him to listen and say “that sucks.” Listen to me. There is nothing you can say to someone that will snap them out of their funk on a dime. All you can do is offer your support and hope that the end is in sight. They might say some weird or even disturbing things.  If they opened up to you enough to voice those things, don’t make them wish they hadn’t by making a big deal of it and making them feel like weirdos. (Disclaimer: Unless, of course, they explicitly tell you they want to hurt or kill themselves, in which case you need to contact the proper authorities/professionals ASAP.) My mom, dad, boyfriend, brother, sister-in-law, grandparents (you catching my drift?) listened to me worry and drone and ramble on for hours, like a broken record player.

And I can never thank them enough.

So that’s it. That’s everything I’ve got to say on the subject. Life is one hell of a ride, with high highs and low lows. Nobody is immune to that. Use your struggles, whatever they were or are, to be a better, more compassionate and empathetic person. Let’s make dialogue about mental health and mental illness normal and mandatory – something that doesn’t make us squirm or feel weird or scared to discuss. It starts with us as individuals; by changing ourselves, society will follow suit.

Do your part.