I measure my days in milligrams. 230, to be exact. I take 30 mg of Lexapro and 200 mg of Lamictal every morning, Part of my before-bed ritual is to make the decision of, ‘to Xanax or not to Xanax?’. If I take the Xanax, I fall asleep significantly faster and the possibility of staying asleep through the night is much higher. I won’t wake up three times a night with my heart pounding and my mind completely disoriented. But, here’s the trade-off: if I do take the Xanax, I will spend the first 3 hours of the next day regretting it – my body feeling drugged from its sensitivity to the medication.
At age 14 I was diagnosed and medicated for clinical anxiety disorder. Around 18 years old, I started to display signs of a depressive disorder. This all got labelled under one mood disorder, and packaged beautifully with a little bow. It had a label, ‘mood disorder’, so I could explain my ups and downs, or peaks and valleys, to close friends, curious minds, or medical professionals.
These medications did not come all at once; their entrances were staggered as my internal issues became more difficult to handle alone. A sprinkle here, a trickle there, and at 22, I’m feeling stable enough. Stable enough to lead a normal social life. I can drink inappropriate amounts of cheap alcohol like any college student, focus on my academic work without too much effort, and sustain friendships. In this sense, I’m lucky, and I can say that to anyone who asks until I am blue in the face. I’m so lucky. Lucky to have a support system of people who understand whats going on. Lucky to have found a concoction of medications that work enough so that I can hide these stigma-ed issues without much thought.
However, luck is a term often used to discount the experience of anyone struggling with mental illness. The mentality of ‘it could be worse’ is very dangerous to someone teetering on the edge of tears, suicide, self-harm, isolation, or borderline agoraphobia. Yes, it could be worse. That said, certainly you are not me, and most likely you are not a licensed doctor. You are a well-wisher, putting things in perspective, trying to push forward a deeply unpleasant conversation you feel inclined to have based on social norms. Maybe your cousins kid is depressed. Maybe you had a great-aunt diagnosed with Hysteria, the fake disease doctors made up to gender depression as a female issue. That’s a bummer, genuinely sorry Aunt Esther had to go through that. But hey, it could be worse! She could have gotten Yellow Fever!
Managing mental illness has more nuance to it than commonly thought. There are everyday decisions I have to make that I know most of my peers do not. For example: Can I get out of bed this morning? If the answer is yes, then I move on to my next set of questions. My heart is pounding. I wonder if I am having a panic attack, which sometimes happen right when I wake up. Should I take medicine for that? If I do, will I fall asleep? Will I make it to class? If I go to class and I don’t take the medication, what if the panic attack gets worse? I’ll have to leave in the middle of my 12-person discussion on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. I’ll lose points in the class for attendance, and I’ll miss that really important quote I can pull out at dinner parties so people know how well-educated and put together I am.
It can be exhausting, and I’m far from the only person who thinks these thoughts or falls into the dark vortex of ‘what-ifs’. However, these illnesses are a fundamental part of who I am. They define my sense of humor, my sensitivity, and my short temper. The anxiety and depression are not the only parts of me; I am the sum of all of my parts, everything from two older sisters, to a love of reading, to a mean streak, all the way to Sunny, the tattered clown I have slept with every night since I was six years old. Depression, anxiety, Sunny, 230 milligrams, and me – what a harmonious existence it is.