Piece Of My Mind
I recently fell into a discussion surrounding mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. The person I sat across from was telling me how she lost her brother to suicide when she was seventeen. I know statistics vary from source to source, but a recent one I read stated that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-34. This is why I speak up about mental illness. We all should raise our voice in order to combat the stigmas that accompany mental illness and to simply tell one another that they are not alone. Feeling isolated in your mind, even if you are surrounded by love and support, is one of the scariest parts of depression and anxiety. We don’t have time anymore to remain silent. One part of the discussion I had with this young woman was how I believe that people that do suffer from mental illness are often stronger because of the obstacles that they have had to face and overcome. There is no battle like the battle in your own mind. Mental toughness and resilience are crucial and it takes time to build them. The incredible part of the conversation that I had, which also led to this piece of writing, was how relieved both of us were to open up about our own struggles. Here are a few thoughts, a piece of my mind, that I hope others relate to or can at least contemplate. It’s me, giving you a small look inside, in hopes of helping someone cope.
Depression makes you want to die, and anxiety makes you feel like you are dying. Depression can take your thoughts to dark places. The kind of places that dig a muddy hole in your brain that force you to tell yourself, “You’re not worthy. You’re a burden that should go into hiding because you deserve nothing or no one.” Then, there’s that little bastard, anxiety, who likes to sneak up on you when you least expect it, slap you on the back of your head and scare the fuck out of you. Anxiety likes to scream, “Wake the hell up because I’ve come to play!” Only, it wants to play with your mind and breath and pain, and give you chills all over that you wish would just go away.
Depression has been with me most of my life. It’s like a dirty fingernail that likes to itch at my brain every so often, especially 1:30am, followed by days of insomnia. I didn’t really understand it when I was little. I just figured my lack of interest or understanding was because I wasn’t good at anything. A loser and a burden. I always thought I was terrible at school because I was dumb, and depression allowed me to accept that. As I got older, the depression led to having suicidal thoughts while sitting in the commons at school. Depression will do that to you. It makes you think that death will be the only thing that can take away the pain. As a young man, it sometimes came in the form of anger and recklessness that could have ruined me. In my adult years, I learned through therapy, reading, and self-discovery why my depression visited me in the first place. It didn’t take away the pain but it allowed me to accept it, to call it, “My Dark Little Friend.” Yes, I had to name it and make friends with it in order to come to terms with the darkness that distorted my thoughts. At times, those thoughts make me want to self-destruct and destroy everything I’ve built in my life because, once again, the depressed mind tells you that you are not worthy of anything good.
Anxiety patiently waited to visit me until well into adulthood. It’s a sneaky little fucker. Apparently, I compartmentalized all the trauma, grief, and other bad shit in my life until one day anxiety decided to rear its ugly head and torment my brain and body. I was forty-two when I had my first panic attack. It hit me like a storm on a flight to San Francisco, and as a nurse was taking my pulse and blood pressure to see if I was having a heart attack, she gently told me it was anxiety. Of course, I didn’t accept that. I’m a man who is too damn strong for anxiety, or so I thought. My physical strength was no match for the mental war inside my mind.The panic attacks hung around for a couple of months and then they simply left. I’m not sure how and I wasn’t mindful enough at the time to be aware. However, a couple of years ago anxiety returned. When I say it returned, I mean it came for blood. It came for my mind and body and soul. I was working in a job that I loved, but one that was stressful. It wasn’t really the kids that were causing stress, but other factors. It started with some tingling in my hands and fingers, which led to blurred vision and the feeling that I must have a disease. By the way, never look your symptoms up on Web MD. They killed me in ten different ways over the Internet. I would be at work, walking down the hallway, only for the hallway to start moving. There were times when I would have to hang onto the wall, or the SRO, to keep me upright. I would be in the lunchroom talking with students and my vision would be terribly blurred, muscles tight and twitching, and I was so dizzy I figured I would eventually pass out in front of a lunchroom full of teenagers. There were other times that I would be having discussions with kids in my office and I would have a panic attack. Of course I would try to hide my panic, which only made it worse. What I should have realized is that my students would have understood. They would have been forgiving and recognized my pain because I have helped many of them work through their own panic. Yes, I could help them with their panic but I had no idea how to help myself. When you are in the midst of anxiety, it’s not exactly easy to press pause, collect yourself, and “fix” what’s wrong. Anxiety doesn’t allow that. Instead, it wants to toy with your mind and tell you that you are most likely going crazy, and then slap you in the face and show you who’s in charge.
One day, I came out of a meeting, walked up to the admin assistant that I worked with and said, “The side of my face is tingling and twitching and so is the entire right side of my body.” With her wisdom and compassion, she knew what was happening but told me to call my doctor. She always did take care of me. This was the start of many emergency room visits. Over the course of a few months, I was given CT Scans, EKGs, EchoCardiograms, MRIs, and blood work, only to be told that all of my symptoms, including the crushing chest pain, was anxiety. What a mother fucker! I was told that what was happening to me was caused by stress and past trauma. I still couldn’t accept that my symptoms were “just” anxiety. Unfortunately, I had to make the decision to leave my job and the students that I loved and did my best to help, and start focusing on my health. My superintendent asked me to stay. He assured me things would be changing for the better. A bit after my departure they did, but I had to leave. This was the first time that I was determined to focus on me because I was becoming so trapped in fear that it was ruining me. I had to protect myself, my marriage, and my life. Anxiety does not just go away. It wants to hang onto your shoulders in the deep end of the pool and pull you under water. That’s what anxiety feels like. You are drowning and every once in a while you lift yourself out of the water just far enough to catch your breath before being pulled under again. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it?
There is hope. I started to realize that I needed to take control of my life again. I needed to create a tool box full of coping mechanisms that I could use when needed. I also realized a harsh truth that is difficult for many to accept. No one is going to come along and rescue you. You can have all the love and support in the world, but you have to help yourself. You have to stand up and yell, “Enough!” and then start putting in the work of building resilience. I mapped out things that I either knew worked for me or wanted to try: Exercise, meditation, yoga, therapy, nature, more sleep (still working on that one), mindfulness, reading, gratitude, writing, and a few more things. Here is what I found: I needed to accept what was happening to me. The more I fought anxiety, (it’s the same with depression) the worse it became. By accepting it fully, I was finally able to stop going to the ER, take a look at why I had anxiety in the first place, and realize that it was my mind and a part of who I am. To deny it was to deny myself. I started to read a lot of books by Thich Nhat Hahn. This gentle man taught me about impermanence. That nothing is permanent and anxiety would not always be with me, especially as extreme as it was. He also taught me that you cannot have happiness without suffering. This made sense to me, as did all of his writings. I have always exercised, so I was used to that being a part of my life. I incorporated breathing exercises into my daily routine to the extent that I now belly breathe all day and all night long. See, most of us breathe into our upper chest, which is anxiety producing. Breathing in our belly helps us calm down and relax. It does take practice but it brings us to being mindful of our breath, which makes us more mindful of our day to day life. I stayed connected with my therapist that I’ve had since I was thirty-one, even though he now lives out east. He told me about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and also told me he wasn’t surprised that anxiety came to me. He told me I was a master at compartmentalizing my feelings and thoughts to protect myself and survive. Those feelings eventually have to come out and when they do they come for vengeance. Understanding myself and my anxiety helped me start to heal.
As you can see, I am open about my anxiety and depression. I am open because I am not ashamed and have made it my mission to extinguish the stigmas that accompany mental illness. I also want to share my story if it helps others. Even if it reaches one person and gives them hope, it’s worth putting myself out there. This isn’t about being brave. It’s about being human. We are all connected and we are not alone. You are not alone in your suffering! That’s important to remember because when you have depression and anxiety, you feel like you are on an island with no one in sight.
I have known too many people that have committed suicide because they could no longer hang on. Don’t let your mind do that to you. There’s another way. Even when your darkest thoughts come along and smother you, bare with it, hang on, and then kick it in the teeth. You are worthy. You are strong, and your depression and anxiety are impermanent. Yes, they may return and remind you they are there. If you build your tool box, your arsenal to cope and be resilient, you will be ready for the war that is in your mind. Win that war! Peace!