Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What it's like to be diagnosed with a mental illness

Everyone suffers from stigma sometimes, but bold yet charming Leslie decided to fight back. Armed with the power of the Internet and a whole lot of passion, she regularly chronicles all of the things that no one dares to say about living with mental illness. As the media portrays anything deemed “abnormal” as both meek and submissive or scary and dangerous, Leslie stands out and brings the focus back on what mental health is really about: every day people with very different and very important challenges. Whether it’s something as every day as getting to important meetings  or terrifying burdens like trying to get an insurance company to recognize that depression needs real treatment, I was instantly drawn in by her often positive but always realistic approach to life.
“There really isn't much of me that's too interesting,” she modestly lies to me, “but there is plenty to say about the whole process of having a mental breakdown whilst at my worst. I’m trying to learn how to do something new. People don’t understand how many aspects of mental health there are. ‘Get healthy’ means navigating the health care system, navigating the insurance industry, learning about my specific illness, microanalyzing my lifestyle to even know what I need to do to start, getting healthy, taking medications, knowing the difference between side effects & symptoms of illness, being in a relationship while I'm going into a bad place… This all really speaks to the need for advocacy in our province.”
Reading what Leslie has to say, you automatically get the impression she is talked a mile a minute just because there is so much information. Where many books can read as preachy and health care professionals can seem detached from the situation, Leslie cuts through the crap and states the many failings of the systems around her that are supposed to help her recovery. Contentedly capeless, she is a real life superhero fighting to get the voice of sick people everywhere heard with humour and grace.
Full of nothing but praise for her supportive boyfriend (“I'm not sure what I would have done without him & his acceptance.”) and scathing critique of her psychiatrist (“There are mental health scripts!”), working on Leslie’s story meant both letting out a laugh and shedding a tear.
"I wasn’t enjoying my life; I was surviving.  It was so difficult to finally admit I had a problem; the fact I couldn’t fix this on my own was hard to accept. People don’t realize that someone who is mentally unfit may need help getting help.  I had a decent job, I am smart, I am articulate & creative, yet something wasn't clicking. I wasn't achieving success. I smiled all the time so no one could see me cry. I didn't know why I was so damn afraid of everything, why my senses always seemed overburdened. I could feel that something was wrong but I just kept pushing through life waiting to 'feel' better. Eventually it became so that my physical symptoms were so severe I was forced to admit my mental woes. Most people don't realize mental illness IS physical! It's in my brain, and my brain is a physical part of my body. Depression has many physical symptoms; needing excessive sleep, not sleeping at all, and other things happening inside my body… Something had to change.
Finding the proper help during crisis was a nightmare. I clearly saw how easily someone could fall through the cracks. Homeless, jobless, without income... These are realities many people with mental illness face. When the problem is cognitive, emotive, AND mental, engaging in the process of healing is challenging.  
Mentally ill are often feared, treated as 'dumb' or not capable of regular human functioning. Stigma is more than prevalent. Before I finally 'cracked,' I had tried talking to my boss about needing time for me. They spoke to me in a very condescending manner. If it were cancer, I think I would have gotten sympathy rather than the third degree.  At no time was our employee assistance program recommended. My boss told me was sick days were for when I was really sick, and if I need a day to myself, well, that's what vacations were for. I thought vacations were for fun & rejuvenation! Not keeping my head above water ...  I discovered crisis help and free counseling on my own while I figured out a recovery plan, but it was just another stressor.
I've survived mental illness most of my life only seeking treatment in my late 20s, mainly because my family. Anxiety has been an issue since early childhood, and depression has weighed on me since my teens. When I went through a depressive anxiety ridden period when I was about 8 or 9 years old, it was written off as a phase. It was dismissed. There is definitely a problem with people not taking mental health seriously enough! If I had childhood diabetes I'd have been diagnosed and treated quickly. I remember crying on my way to social functions on many occasions but being told I was 'silly' and to snap out of it. I excelled in school and was athletic, so teachers never thought to step in.
A diagnosis of GAD PTSD & MDD* only came this year. Now, I have directly explained my condition and have received kindness, love, and acceptance. I don't think they fully understand, but their acceptance can be best described by my youngest sister’s response: "So? You're still you. Are you going to be okay?” Now, they are there for me. I know that. And that's fabulous.
Mental illness is still very taboo. People suddenly think you're losing cognitive ability when really it's emotive. They don't want to trust you.  Friendships suffer. I gave up self medicating about 7 years ago, which has means I have socially isolated myself. I have few (no?) friends. I can’t leave the house without getting sick first. I got tired of cancelling plans, so I stopped making them. I was also not able to finish university despite two attempts at going. My energy does not allow working and studying full time. Grades were acceptable (B's some A's) but I couldn't keep up. I was barely surviving.
I have found new ways to connect and cope. I love movies, especially ‘bad’ movies! Cheesy 80's flicks. Horror movies.  Bad romcom's. Documentaries are my lifeblood. I kinda like video games. I am an Internet JUNKIE.  I'm an avid reader and writer. I love nature and camping. I love to dance (poorly!) and music has always been a strong interest even though I don't play anything. Really though, my number one love is learning. I love problems and finding solutions. If I could be a professional student I would.  Alas, it's not in the cards for now.
I reach out for help online a lot and have found an AMAZING community of supportive people on Twitter. This has allowed me to talk about my experience going through mental illness honestly and openly so it isn't hidden from the public. I also network with other people who are experts in the field. Social media also gives me the opportunity to get my feet wet being comfortable with social exchange. Social anxiety has been the most debilitating part, and my Twitter network has helped so much. I have connected with some amazing people!
I am also social justice junkie (some people call them activists, whatever that means, haha). I support to various causes online, including ending the prohibition of marijuana, especially those in medical need. Trying to make the world a better place makes me want to stay a part of it, you know? Suicide has definitely been something I've had to confront. While I've not gone through with an attempt, I have written my goodbyes many times. I don't want to say goodbye to a world I know is possible of wonder and change and revolution.
Each day I help make that possible is another day I thrive, instead of just survive."

*I have decided the specific diagnosis shouldn't matter to the reader, but obviously you are able to find out more information through Google & etc.


Cat Party 2012 said...

Everyone living with a mental illness needs at least one cat. The case could even be made for a second.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason this is my favorite blog. Thanks Mary.

We can always tell that you care.

Sophia said...

I need to follow Leslie on Twitter. What a powerful story!

Anonymous said...

What a great story! Leslie is my hero.

Anonymous said...

I agree that people talk about depression a lot but don't take it very seriously. I am 17 years old and although I have told my parents that I am very depressed, they just say it is normal for teenagers to feel that way. I look at my friends. I'm not normal. I feel so weird. I don't want to tough it out for a few more years just to discover nothing is better in my twenties.

Good luck Leslie. Great interview.

Daisy said...

Thanks for sharing... !

la petite coquine said...

When my dad had a breakdown a few years ago (it doesn't feel like it's been nearly that long, or that short), I realized how many people were uncomfortable talking about what he and my entire family was coping with. But I refused to let their stigmas change how I felt about him, and I found that the more I talked, the better people understood that people suffer from the same illnesses, no matter how brilliant or how seemingly comfortable, and that we can all find ourselves in crisis. Thank you for sharing this.

My Salty Smile said...

Thanks for the kind words & shared stories. I was pleased to share my story and Alison did a great job putting it together ^_^