As a candid writer and someone who suffers from mental illness it seems silly not to discuss mental health during what’s recognized nationally as “Mental Health Awareness Month”. It’s not a sexy topic but it’s a real one and I’m ready to be raw.
Since 2012 I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. Before my first anxiety attack I was smoking a blunt with a guy I had a crush on. I was in my car driving him home and being super clumsy and air-headed behind the wheel—normal high shit. I’m sure he didn’t think much of it but I was utterly embarrassed. I dropped him off but kept replaying what happened as I drove home and got ready for work.
To make matters worse, I showed up to my job to find out I was late. I’d been scheduled to start an hour earlier than the time I’d actually arrived. I walked into a zoo of a retail store which only made me feel more manic. Clothes were strewn everywhere and my manager was at my throat about the schedule mix-up. I went behind the cash wrap to ring up customers and suddenly started to feel short of breath. My vision filled with black spots and I felt dizzy. I tried to take deep breaths but the sensation wasn’t subsiding. I was having a panic attack. My manager let me take sometime to collect myself in the break room and apologized for coming down on me so hard, but it was much deeper than her.
“I’m determined to stay off medication.”
After I experienced that first attack I quickly got a prescription for Zoloft. I was surprised how easy it was to get the medicine. I had just made the switch from my pediatrician to a new primary care physician. I told the doctor I had anxiety and wanted a pill to make it stop. At the end of that first appointment she wrote me a ‘scrip for the antidepressant I would end up using as a crutch for the next five years.
When I started taking a small dose of Zoloft my panicky feelings left me. I felt more in control, more calm, and ready to take on most situations without a constant sense that stakes were high. It was great for awhile. During my follow-up visits every three months my doctor always offered me a higher dose of medication and I always declined. I began feeling like I was just coasting through life, not actually feeling much at all. There was a lack of emotion, a lack of motivation and a lack of enthusiasm toward everything. Feelings of depression that used to only come up now and then became regular. I flatlined.
Without consulting my physician I weened myself off the drug over the course of a couple months. The withdrawal symptoms included lightheadedness, fatigue and irritability. It was uncomfortable but I’m glad I did it, even though now I’m faced with anxiety again. It’s been suggested that I try a different brand of medicine but I have no interest in falling back into that dependency. I’d rather be anxious than depressed, though having anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean feelings of depression never creep up. I teeter between caring about the wrong things (anxiety) and not caring about anything at all (depression).
People get anxious when they overthink. Anxiety disorder is essentially the mind steering us down a dark hole by playing “negative tapes” in our head. The stories we make up in our minds stem from past experiences, big and small. When I replayed the awkward high moments in my car with my crush I made myself believe he looked at me differently, or was judging me. It likely wasn’t true at all but mentally, I committed to that idea and made myself believe it. The same way we talk down on ourselves in our inner monologue, we can also choose to boost ourselves instead.
Physically, anxiety manifests in multiple ways. For me it can mean sweaty palms, heart palpitations, loss of appetite, or frequent bathroom use. I hate it. It can be debilitating but usually I’m able to stop it before it turns into a full-blown attack. I use exercise, journaling, and meditation to combat anxious feelings. It’s also recommended that people dealing with any kind of mental illness talk to a therapist regularly.
I’m determined to stay off medication if for no other reason than not wanting to shell out money to corporations capitalizing on my personal issues. Furthermore it’s my belief that anyone can overcome anxiety and depression through meditation, therapy, and support from family and friends. I’m not there yet but I’m committed to conquering my mind through the journey of enlightenment. I know I’m capable of doing what it takes to get well.
When I was studying abroad in Mexico and simultaneously going through my first real breakup, I was feeling depressed and opted out of one of my school’s planned excursions. My host mom said something to me that’s stuck with me: “Hay que manejar la mente.” It means you have to direct your thoughts and not the other way around. It’s about getting in the habit of acknowledging the bad thoughts and then stopping them before they spiral. I’m still high and awkward like I was five years ago, only now I’m driving in a different direction.