May is host to a number of days, weeks, and month-long holidays and awareness campaigns. Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Star Wars Day, and even No Diet Day. As you may already know, May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s not exactly something that I find comfort in.
Campaigns throughout the month of May are intended to help minimize the stigma associated with mental illness. But this month is not always easy for those of us who are living with mental illnesses. There are still assumptions. Stigma. Judgement. Thoughts from those who have never lived through the lows and the highs of a brain that rollercoasters out of control sometimes. So here is what I want other people to take away from this month.
You probably can’t spot mental illness.
At least not as easily as you think you can. In December 2018, I walked into the mental health office at my university in crisis. Before I left I was asked again and again, “Can you keep yourself safe?” I didn’t say yes. Instead I said, “I don’t know. I think so.”
Because I wasn’t sure. In those low moments I looked at my children and my husband and knew with every fiber of my being that they would be better if I was gone. They would be more than better — they would thrive.
A few weeks later we flew back home to spend Christmas with our families. I smiled. And I laughed. Then I drank all of Christmas day to numb the pain I felt in plastering on a disguise. No one knew the thoughts of suicide I was battling every moment of every day.
This Mental Health Awareness Month, remember that those of us who are living with depression, anxiety, and other illnesses don’t present like you might think. Like anyone living with a serious illness, you may never see our symptoms. That doesn’t mean we’re not suffering.
Getting care isn’t always easy.
I am 30, and am currently receiving treatment for the longest period of my adult life. In the past 12 years I’ve visited a psychiatrist once, but never went back. I saw a handful of doctors who prescribed me various medications, all of which I stopped taking soon after.
I’ve been receiving somewhat consistent care over the past several months by both a psychiatrist and therapist. Ignore the handful of times I panicked and cancelled appointments, only to soon receive calls from my providers making sure I was safe. Checking to make sure I would follow my safety plan if I needed to.
But now? I haven’t been to a therapist in well over a month. I’m still waiting for my first appointment with my new psychiatrist. I can no longer receive care at the university, because I don’t attend anymore. I told people I had stopped attending classes for financial reasons, and sure, that was part of it. But really I had to do a medical withdrawal because my mental health problems made it impossible for me to attend class.
I left my last appointment with a list of potential therapists to call. It took me a couple of weeks to build up the nerve to start making the calls.
Finding a therapist who accepts my insurance, treats my mental health needs, and who will actually call me back after leaving a message has proved to be incredibly difficult. I still don’t have a therapist.
Medicine can be instrumental.
Knock it off with the articles that preach exercise and good nutrition as treatments for mental illness while demonizing medication. You’re being a jerk. There, I said it. I’m not saying those things can’t help, but they’re not a treatment for a serious and debilitating mental illness. Go ahead, tell me to go for a walk when I’m in bed at 3 in the afternoon and can’t get out. See how well that goes.
Getting the right diagnosis is crucial.
I’ve received on and off treatment for mental illnesses for 18 years. I’ll let you do the math on when that all started for me. But you know what? I didn’t get a crucial diagnosis until earlier this year. I’ve lived more than half of my life undiagnosed and untreated for a serious mental illness that has affected every aspect of my life. From my marriage to my parenting to my friendships, I can look back and see in terrifying detail how this illness has colored my life.
But living in a world that stigmatizes mental illness, it’s not a diagnosis I’m comfortable sharing with anyone other than a select few. In some ways it feels easier, in others I feel like I’m constantly hiding.
Saying “I’m here” doesn’t always help.
I’ve seen you posting. Sharing the suicide hotline, copying and pasting messages that you’re a safe person to talk to. Posting reminders to check on your friends. And every time I scroll past one of those messages I feel a brief wave of nausea.
Those messages make me feel exposed and vulnerable. Like someone can see specifically what is wrong with me, posting a subtle message that they know. They see me for what I am.
In all likelihood, your friends suffering from mental illnesses are not going to reach out to you based on those messages. I’m not saying stop sharing them, but remember that it’s probably not as helpful as you think it is.
I’m sorry to those who live with us.
Every now and then I think, “My husband really loves me.” Because he has spent 10 years in a relationship with a woman living with an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. He rides through wave after wave after wave alongside me. Deals with the spiraling anger that comes with my anxiety as I try to learn to cope through both medication and methods I learned in therapy (it’s not going well).
But it’s taken a toll on him and my kids to have to live with someone who is not well. It’s not their fault, and yet they live vicariously through this every day right alongside me. It’s a burden they carry. One that I can’t understand but am wholly responsible for.
As people speak out about their struggles during Mental Health Awareness Month, don’t forget about the rest of us. Those who can only speak in vague terms and who don’t feel comfortable talking to you about it. We’re here, and we’re fighting each day to stay here.