May is Mental Health Month. And awareness is hugely important in conquering societal stigma and combating isolation among those of us (one in five!) who have mental health problems.
But when you’re in the thick of it—when you can’t get out of bed, feel terrified to leave the house or can’t imagine life untainted by a cloud of dread or hopelessness—societal awareness means pretty much nothing. It’s heartening in the abstract. But really, the only awareness that matters is yours, and you feel miserable. You’re not only aware; you’re hyper vigilant and attuned only to the tomb that your brain has become.
As someone who’s grappled with anxiety and panic since college—it ebbs, flows and recurs like a nasty rash—I have plenty of big-picture advice about finding the right therapist (I’ll post about that later), evaluating medications and explaining your issues to those lucky people who can’t relate.
But really, when you’re struggling, the only person who matters is you. It’s like switching into airplane mode on an iPhone. You need to shut everything else down and perform only essential functions. I know; this isn’t always doable. Most of us have to go to work, pay bills, take care of kids and live our lives with some modicum of forward motion. But I’ve also learned that there are small, subtle ways to make life a little more manageable while you’re trying to slog through the day.
Tell an appointed few. If you’re not firing on all cylinders, let a few people know. Put out the word. You don’t need to send a mass text or announce it on social media (unless that makes you feel better, but it really might not—see below). Think of it as summoning a small army of supporters who can check in and pitch in, if you need help. Really, though, it’s not even about getting help as much as the catharsis of sharing your experience. Sometimes it can feel like you’re harboring a secret, especially since this kind of illness is invisible. Even the act of opening up makes you feel less alone.
Choose your confidantes wisely—and realize not everyone will meet your expectations. I used to wish people were mind-readers, especially when I was really struggling with panic (agoraphobia too) and feeling resentful. Don’t they get it? Why did I make myself vulnerable? Why don’t they check in, or ask how I am, or say the right thing? I’m 40 now and realize that nobody, not even the most well-meaning friend or family member, will say or do the right thing all the time. It’s best to compartmentalize people. Some people are great checker-inners. Others are better for longer but more infrequent conversations. Others aren’t great with emotions but can always make you laugh. Nobody will be able to fill all of your needs—and when you’re needy, almost everyone will disappoint you somehow. People seem worse when you’re wearing foggy glasses. Realize this. It’s not personal. It’s just life. Your perspective will shift when you feel better. And you will! The flip side to this is the number of unlikely allies you’ll find, if you’re open about it. People you never, ever would suspect possibly have mental health problems will seek you out and support you.
Avoid triggers and embrace the good. I’m talking about social media here. Mute people, news outlets, companies and so on that stir up foul, petty, jealous, wistful emotions. Cultivate your virtual environment wisely. On that note, follow people or organizations that deal with issues that matter to you. It’s a big world out there. I love following Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Pajama Program, both of which post absolutely wonderful stories about how they’re making the world a happier place for needy kids. Or I read patient success stories from local hospitals and start to cry. The point is—I get out of my own lonely head. I remind myself that it’s a very large and, for the most part, empathetic world out there. Social media isn’t all bad; just use it to your advantage.
Don’t push yourself. Most of my anxieties come from health issues. I’m lucky that I’ve never been depressed as an adult, but I spend most of my life on fairly high alert—an alert that can sometimes spill into unhealthy anxiety and downright panic. And a few weeks ago, it had built up to the point where I was getting daily panic attacks. They were small little earthquakes that didn’t completely derail me but gradually wore me down to the point of paralysis. I was supposed to go to a family wedding in Nashville, and the thought of getting onto a tiny tin can and hurtling through the air at 40,000 feet with my chest tightening and my heart racing seemed absolutely impossible. I dreaded it. I feared it. I broke out in hives over it. It was too much, and I was beginning to feel completely jealous of everyone else going who clearly didn’t have my issues. How could these people get on a plane? Didn’t they know we could all die? Rural Tennessee? Far from a hospital? Clearly, I needed to take a step back, deal with the root of the panic and not force myself into a situation that probably would have resulted in me hiding out in the hotel room during the reception. So I bowed out. I felt flaky and embarrassed, but I also knew that I had to put myself first. And because I’m always pretty open about my panic problems, nobody was flabbergasted or angry. They understood. They were supportive. Honesty has benefits.
But don’t totally give in to yourself, either. I made a deal with myself: No, I was not going to go to this wedding. But I also couldn’t curl into a ball and wait for my imaginary illness to eat me alive. I made smaller goals for myself that weird weekend, such as going out to dinner locally and sending emails to potential new therapists. (That’s a whole other story for a different post.) When your brain is misfiring, even simple activities are victories. So set yourself small goals, even if it’s walking around the block.
Reward yourself. This can be as trashy and lame as you like. Made it through the workday? Get a big fat eggplant parmesan sub. Took a shower? Load up something juicy on your Kindle. Now is not the time to embark on major career changes or self-improvement plans. Indulge. Pamper yourself. Give yourself one little reward per day. You made it. Right now, just existing is enough.
You are not your illness. Remind yourself every day. Anxiety, panic, depression, what have you—it’s a component of you. It’s not you. It’s a small, possibly temporary, treatable piece of who you are. I’ve come to think of my panic problems as a nasty rash or a little demon that comes to visit sometimes, that needs to be quelled and swatted away like the irritant it is. But it exists side by side with the rest of my personality, which is pretty outgoing and functional. Make sure your problems know their place. When you’re mired in it, this is really hard. This isn’t a broken leg or a sore throat. Your brain is you, after all; it’s the motherboard through which you process everything. So it’s easy to think your mental health problems are your identity. They’re not. They’re a broken leg; not a flawed core.
So during Mental Health Month, go easy on yourself. And if you know someone who might be struggling, check in—and then follow through! Remember even the most outwardly functional, bubbly person might barely tread water below the surface.
For more help and resources, visit NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.