Mental Illness: My Work In Progress
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Preface ~ I began writing this on Thursday, February 22nd. It has been taking me a few days to edit and get all the words just right. I have long hoped for the right moment when I could shed some light on my experiences with mental illness and if my experiences this week provide any kind of help, hope, comfort, or joy to someone, then I know I can praise God for this journey I am on, that this is worth something outside myself. Since writing this, I am doing better so if you are at all worried by this piece, please don't be. God is good, and I have faith that He will use this life for good things and continue to provide hope and a future. In everything, He has never ceased to show me His faithfulness, and so I promise to Him, to my readers, and to myself that I will walk every day in that, looking ahead to what I cannot see. So here is a little window into my experience with a lifetime of Generalized Anxiety and purely obsessional OCD (aka Pure OCD or Pure O). Anyone else going through this knows that some days are good--some are great in fact, and other days are a real struggle. Sometimes there are long periods of lows and maybe that's what this is, but in the end, I have to remember that given time, it will pass, and so I keep going. As the title says, this journey is a work in progress, and so the best we can do when the world inside of us seems crushing is to force ourselves to get up and keep progressing, even when we have no idea what tomorrow will hold.
20 Feb. 2020
My hands are trembling. I can tell by my typing (--easily kept secret, thank you spellcheck!) My breaths are tense and shallow, and in my eyes, there is an air of exhausted panic, at least it feels that way. I stop to examine how I feel: everything is hectic, like walking through a crowded New York street right after a very important business meeting that you weren't prepared for--everything is buzzing and spinning, yet the Earth is standing still. My heart races. Crowds pass me by, oblivious to my worriedly frantic expression. The feeling of invisibility grows. I walk into an empty room and while it may reduce the faces that go past or the cold that keeps me shivering with tension, it is not any quieter. The tune may have changed but the noise! Quiet at first, then louder, louder, LOUDER! The noise of having a thousand thoughts buzzing inside my head like a colony of bees desperate to meet their quota before the winter comes and all too quickly running out of time. Yet as I type, I feel like the words come dripping out onto the keys like molasses--an agonizingly slow pace when one's thoughts are already racing lightyears away, racing. Another day that my mind is fighting to claim for itself. To paraphrase John Green's The Fault in Our Stars: "I experience anxiety the way people fall asleep, slowly and then all at once."
One strategy which sometimes works is to analyze the problem scientifically:
Variable #1 - Like most of the week so far, I got very little sleep last night (maybe four hours), trying to complete schoolwork.
Variable #2 - I am taking 18 units this term, which included a presentation in class today, and trying to hold down a job on top of everything. That's a lot to handle.
Variable #3 - I haven't eaten first thing in the morning, so food was postponed until a quarter to noon. This often causes my acid-reflux to act up, which also happens when I am anxious or can't sleep, so there could be a psychological association there.
Variable #4: I haven't seen my family or friends at home in a long time, which means I have been very much lacking in the hug department. I'm hug-depraved--(which I know, that sounds a bit creepy, but since that's a big part of my love language, it is what it is.)
From there we can extrapolate a few solutions: Sleep more, eat better. Stop, close your eyes, and take a breath. Try to snap yourself out of it by listening to other people talk. Turn on some music and distract yourself till it passes. Ask for a hug. Focus on the little happy things. Just do it, what are you afraid of? So many people have it so much worse than you and it's doing no good to keep drawing attention to yourself, so why don't you just stop it? Go on! Stop it!
But I don't stop. I try using logic to explain my way out or normalize it at least, but something in my gut says this still doesn't entirely add up. There is something off about this, there has to be. It can't just be the normal adolescent/post-adolescent circumstantial brain response, not anymore. Ok, I think, I'll try a deep breath--but it comes back shallow and unsatisfying. Every gasp for air only reminds me that I am gasping, that I'm still so tense and worried, and failing to breathe it all away. I try some food, a cup of tea, even treat a friendly classmate to breakfast so that we can chat till her next class starts. I count my fingers forwards and backward, first by ones, then two's, three's, ten's, sevens, and so on. When that fails I count colors in the room or touch a doorknob to alert the tactile senses that I am, in fact, still here in the present. (And no, hugging strangers doesn't work, not to mention it's incredibly unsafe.) Music begins streaming through my headphones into my ears, but everything just sounds too fast, and it dawns on me that I don't want to just distract myself again. You can only put something back on a shelf for so long before it realizing that that probably isn't healthy either. The prayers flood in, and I reassure myself with a sermon, a Bible passage, a worship song. But it's no use for me. My shoulders are still so tense, my breaths shallow and my lungs starving, my stomach painfully acidic, my world still hug-less, and now my spirit exhausted and heartbroken because try as I might, nothing is working to logic it all away. Believe me, I would love absolutely nothing more than to stop and just snap out of it, and there is a seed deep-rooted in my head that blames me for not being able to because, with practical thinking, prayer, and proper health, I should be able to. Right? I must be able to, so the fact that I'm stilling spinning, worse now than before, has to be a matter of my own fault because I just haven't tried hard enough or maybe I am afraid to get better and make myself stop. Often, I'm finding, that the Spock-like brain and deep-feeler heart switch alliances in this struggle. In other words, there is never consistency as far as which one--heart or head-- is on my side to support me and which one is fighting to destroy the enemy that is myself...
[Pausing for a sec before you read the next paragraph: I have thought a lot about whether to add this section or not, so I thought I should explain why I kept it. I believe that these words in my head are lies and that I am more valuable and loved than what my head would tell me. I am not asking for sympathy or words of affirmation. Instead, this paragraph is meant to provide some perspective for those who have not experienced anxiety or intrusive thoughts but maybe know someone who does. The goal of this is to spread some awareness of what many people often feel like and have to fight against. Most of the time, the ugly symptoms of mental illness are suffered in silence, and as communication is one of the only bridges between the mind and the world outside, I feel it is important for the dear friends and family of those who have not yet spoken up to hear this so they can have understanding and empathy for what they may be going through. Cheesy or not, I believe that with patience and awareness, we can help a lot of people fight mental illness, and at the very least remind them there are people who want to listen and provide that support.]
... The thoughts have become much more critical now. Words like "pathetic," "coward," "dramatic" and "attention-seeker" flood my head with their vicious dance. My heart is flooded with abuse: "Why do you think you're so special? Everyone gets anxious! Further, they fight through it, so why can't you? It's your fault. Stop whining, no one likes that. No one likes you. A single frown or side glance could mean they hate you and you're right. Don't go to that thought, really you want to have an existential breakdown right now, here, in the middle of class? But remember how lonely you are right now? You should retreat back to your room like a hermit. Also, you think about yourself way too much, that's selfish and sad. Your arm hurts, omg maybe you're dying! What if you're delusional now too? Or what if you have a heart attack or cancer? Would anyone know if you died? How long would it take someone to find your body? At least you can go home if that's the case, running and escaping like always. You can only confide these things to your friends and family, maybe they don't like it? That's depressing, you chase people away stop. Beside they are all so far away, meanwhile you are still here. How long have you been thinking about this? Seriously stop doing this to yourself GOD woman get it together and quit beating yourself up, what the frick is wrong with you?!"
Like I said, slowly... then all at once. They started subtly, like little needles, I was pricking myself with. But a few more on the pile, a bit louder, a bit harsher, and suddenly I'm on the verge of tears which now have to be masked under a fake smile and held in tightly until I find myself curled up in a single-stall bathroom at the end of the day, wondering how on earth things ever got this far. But I still have to function in the real world, so I force my brain to switch to auto-pilot, casually laughing at witty remarks, agreeing with the lecturer's comments, walking to and from class, snapping into focus straining to filter their words through all the thought-noise. Finally, a moment to slip away and process everything, and I realize how just burnt-out exhausted I am. I have to hope that this isn't all my fault, and maybe there is something wrong with me--at least if so, it may finally prove my innocence in the matter-- but I don't know deep down if my whole heart will ever be fully convinced.
The thing with mental illnesses is that all the pain, exhaustion, physical strain, everything about is real and felt. But because it is all happening inside your brain, the condition is all-too-often a secret. Mental illness is a sickness and a pain that not only affects and hurts how you see your self and how you behave in and as a result of that vicious cycle. But, at least what I believe, is the worst part about it is that most of the time, no one can see it but you unless you choose to show them. A broken leg or crippling disease or disability, even the flu, all of these are things you can tangibly point too. But unless people with mental issues and emotional/psychological hurt speak to each other about what's going on, nothing keeps you, us, or anyone from living in isolated in our lonely world with ourselves--our worst enemy--to fester there forever.
But communication takes some courage. Not everyone will appreciate your vulnerability or completely understand what you are going through. And that's ok. A wise blogger I knew once wrote the following:
"Take the next step when you are ready. Start journaling about how you were blessed with your thorn rather than hindered. When you are ready, share with others about whatever it is God doesn't seem to heal, it may bring clarity to yourself and others as well as allow yourself to come to terms with the idea you are not alone."
~ Jake Black, 5 Oct. 2019
Sometimes I think maybe we face the challenges we do in order to help someone else. The pain and destruction that sin brought to the world are already in the world. Someone is going to have to face it, and I know that doesn't make sense, and it's a hard pill to swallow. But maybe God chose me or you or us to have to walk in it--not because of sin or punishment or lack of faith--but because God looked us, smiled, and saw strength. Maybe He loved us so much that He wanted us to be an example of faithful perseverance for His glory, who can show the next person suffering from the same thing, that someone has gone before and understands. Maybe He chose us to proclaim that they can see God working in the midst of joy and in the midst of crippling darkness. Then maybe, we can help others fight this somehow, even though it may never go away, and be a source of hope, of comfort, or simply support them with understanding. Then, as they continue to step forward and keep going, they can become that same example of strength and sanctuary for the next person, and so on. Perhaps we are all just running this race for the ones who are going to run it after us.
One thing I know is certain: no one should ever have to face that alone. So to everyone reading this, whether you need it now or just in case you need it later, here is a reminder:
You are not alone. You are deeply loved. You matter. Your life matters, and whatever goes on I will be there for you as you are walking through it. This too shall pass, even if it's not in this life. But regardless, God made you which means you are beautifully and wonderfully made. This may be your path, but it is not your fault! Keep going, share your story, and don’t ever forget how valued you are! ♥️