Mental illness, like so many things, has both genetic and an environmental/experiential components. My brother, Mike, and I have the same parents and grew up in the same environment. We also have many of the same diagnoses including social anxiety, mood disorders, and addiction issues.
These issues, and how we have grappled with them over the years, reveal the force and quirks of our personalities. Not only that, but our struggles have helped shaped who we are. They also speak to the ruthless, adaptive abilities of MI, and how varied its manifestations (and the ways in which its sufferers cope) may be–even amongst siblings. But more to the point, how we and have experienced mental illness, and have sought mental health, feature heavily in the stories that make up our lives. What follows are two such stories.
Mike’s Story: A Gang of Therapists
People scare me. Always have. When I was small, the grown-ups called this “just shy,” and it was an endearing, if somewhat pitous quality to have. I was that kid you see sometimes…who hides behind his parents’ legs. “That’s Mike,” someone would say. “He’s just shy.”
When I got big enough to go to school, my social anxiety tagged along. Teachers didn’t like me clinging to their legs, and so, as the other kids sized each other up–making eye contact that was mostly friendly–my gaze slid away to the side. I didn’t want to be seen, and that in itself made me stand out, especially to the crueler children.
You know, it’s funny. Even though bullying is never prescribed to treat social anxiety, it is a form of exposure therapy everyone with it has tried. Maybe for some people it works. For me, it was a free service I’d just as soon been without. I fought often, won sometimes, but never gained a lasting respite. The therapists kept on coming! and once the whole class joined in, I knew the battle was lost.
Here’s what I learned in group therapy: humor can be a sort of shield. As can abstruse phraseology. (See what I mean?) If only I’d had some glasses! then my Nutty Professor bit would have been perfect. But here I am, nearly three decades later, and without so much as a dimple on the bridge of my nose. Ah well.
While self-deprecating humor didn’t ease my anxiety or satisfy my growing healthcare team, it did allow me to choose when I got picked on and what for. And here’s a tip: the best time is right before class, when there is little room for follow-up. As for the “what for,” it is preferable to do something which demands the attention of grown-ups. That way, you can tumble winningly into a chair, while secretly asking for help. “That’s Mike,” someone would say. “What a clutz!”
Now that I’m older, I am pleased to say that I’ve worked things out with the furniture. Now when I trip, it’s for real. And I own it. But the self-effacing chuckle remains: a sarcastic grin bent down at the edges.
My healthcare team has improved, too. Now I have a doctor with letters that follow his name, a business card, and (my favorite) a prescription pad. I have been formally diagnosed with anxiety, insomnia, depression, and agoraphobia, of all things. Finding a suitable treatment has taken just over a decade. I’ve tried Prozac (made me sluggish), Wellbutrin (night terrors!), Zoloft (no effect), Buspar (nausea), Xanax (nausea and dizziness), Trazodone (woke up gasping from that one), alcohol (wrote this scrip myself–it didn’t work, if you can believe it), marijuana (same!), and negative self talk (my former therapists taught me that one).
I’m currently on a combination of Lexapro, Remeron, Lamictal, Klonopin, Adderall, Ambien, and talk therapy. It seems to be working! I’m succeeding in nursing school, while making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. I also am chasing down lifelong goals: I’m editing my first novel as I work on a second, I’m in the early stages of several sculptures, and I’m writing a rap for a fish (Gill Face) who scored a promotion with Low Tide Treats (a candy bar maker, but for fish). What can I say? I have been busy, and yes, my sculptures are a little bit out there.
But my journey toward mental health hasn’t been all Jerry Lewis and algae rhymes. By and large I’ve spun my wheels, accruing real debt to creditors and emotional debt to family and friends. It’s been messy, and people have gotten hurt. And yet through it all my family has been there, despite outbursts when I pushed them away. In many ways, this joint-post encapsulates what seeking mental health has meant for me:
Were it not for the interventions of actual doctors and therapists, I would never have made it into the nursing program which facilitated this collaboration with my sister (who is a champion for mental health, and all-around Inspiration Gangster, in case you hadn’t noticed). Which brings me to my last, and most important, point: Family. Were it not for my family’s unflagging love and support, there’s no telling where I’d be right now. Probably drunk somewhere, possibly dead, in prison, or in some combination of the three. And yet here I am: 16+ months since my last drink, half-way to my RN, and closer to my family than ever. If you’re someone who is struggling with mental illness, I implore you to do the scary, yet necessary thing: seek help, from wherever you can find it. Remember: the damage from not doing so is real. But so is redemption, which is attainable, even though it may not always seem like it. And without it, there can be little happiness and even less freedom.
Sara’s Story: Emotions Are A Secret
Everyone has a handful of memories from when they are really little. Some are good, like being thrown in the air with a sheet and then landing again with a “hip hip hooray!”, a family activity inspired by Winnie the Pooh. Other memories aren’t as good, but are often very formative.
I have one such formative memory from the first week of Kindergarten. At the end of the day I was waiting outside with my classmates for pickup. At this school, they had some of the 5th graders come to the lower classes and help the teacher watch the students. Our 5th grader was walking up to each kid and pointing to their chest saying, “you have something here” and then they would look down and he’d poke their nose and say “made you look!”. He came to me and tried, I looked at him and said, “I’m not going to fall for that!” Then he said it, the three words that stab a kid in the heart, “you’re no fun!”
I don’t remember the car ride home, but I do remember getting home and going to my bedroom and closing the door. I layed down on my bed and cried. Mike walked in my room, probably wanting to play, and saw me crying. He yelled, “Sara’s crying!” and then came over to ask what was wrong. The issue was sorted out, and I’m not upset about the dumb 5th grader who said I was no fun. I was fun, I was just also someone who decided to follow her logic instead of the crowd. Something I’m proud to say I still do today.
The part of this story I’m affected by is that at such a young age I was ashamed of being sad and hid in my room to cry, even though my family was always supportive and my mom helped me work though this particular issue like a champ once she found out what happened.
Because I always tried to hide my negative emotions, my jump into social anxiety was likely a quiet one to those around me. On my first day of Middle School, I discovered that my pants had been undone the whole day and no one, not even my supposed friends, told me. This incident flicked a switch in my brain and I was afraid to so much as cough in class, let alone talk to others.
Social anxiety and the isolation that came with it helped fuel the start of depression, another negative emotional experience I felt I should keep to myself. I was good at fooling people, but I’m sure they were easy to fool.
Now I live in a weird limbo in my head. People scare me, but I also feel strong empathy and concern for those around me. In a way, that’s what makes having a blog therapeutic for me, it allows me to educate others about mental illness through experience and research. Oddly enough, it also serves as a way to share my feelings, the very things I tried to hide since early childhood.
My treatments have been ever evolving and an actual diagnosis is relatively new. I lived in the world of NOS (not otherwise specified) for so long. Something that has taken a long time too is being honest with my family about my struggles. For someone who fights stigma, it’s ironic that I was so scared of what my family would think of me. For example, when I was on my way to rehab I worded it as, “I’m going somewhere safe.” They did know at that point that I was trying to stop drinking, and they knew that I had been to the ER recently due to a relapse turned sort of suicide attempt. For some reason “somewhere safe” seemed more acceptable than “rehab”. Looking back, it’s stupid and vague, but I was still learning to tell them about my internal demons.
My treatments will continue to evolve, but one of the big changes is that I know I have people other than my husband, therapist, and psychiatrist who will accept me and help me when I need it. They likely always would have, but I was too scared to talk about it.
My sister and I have been on different trajectories for just about all of our lives. She was early to distinguish between right and wrong, and hearing the phrase “I’m telling!” from a morally precocious younger sibling was a maddening predicament for a brat like me. It is my regret that I lashed out at her then, calling her a tattle-tale and making the pronouncement she mentioned in her story: “You’re no fun.”
But we were just kids back then, still feeling out how to interact with the world and each other. Now we are closer than ever, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that we run in different circles. My sister is the most ethically conscious person I know. I, however, view ethical dilemmas from a recliner: I always strive to do what’s right, but my position on what that may be is flexible, laid back, and with patches on the armrests.
To me, these differences underscore the insidious nature of mental illness. While its manifestations may differ for the two of us, the overlap of pain and struggle is common to us both. As we continue to approach optimal mental health, it is my hope that we will become even closer, bonding both over the things that make us different, as well as the painful slice we share between.
If you are thinking about ending your own life, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Hotline is: (1-800-273-8255)