Last week, in a rare act of mass social media participation, I made a fairly impromptu decision to write about and share my struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD. After years of working way too hard to hide the madness in my head, I suddenly just laid everything out on the table. I originally wrote the piece to help my family understand what life was like for me. I wanted to make my feelings as real for them as they were for me; to find words that would do justice to the sensations of my panic attacks, my uncontrollable fixations on thoughts or fears, and my constant questioning of life’s purpose. If that sounds heavy and exhausting to you, you are right. It was a total downer. And I certainly never intended to share it past them.
But something had kicked in inside of me. Maybe it was knowing that I’d wasted years not doing what I wanted to out of fear. Maybe I was tired of questioning, “What’s the point?” all the time. Maybe I’d finally found the point: that I should just freaking live and to do the things I want to do and stop thinking so damn much about everything! I’d never been able to stop thinking before. I’d always held back. I’d finally finished writing something, and if I could get this far, why not go all the way?
On the other hand, maybe it was just the Prozac. Regardless, for the first time ever I let my fears go. I published the piece on Medium, then posted it to my Facebook page.
After I hit ‘publish,’ I stood up and walked away from the computer. I couldn’t look. Nerves charged through my body and I started sweating profusely. Not like some adorable girly ‘glisten,’ I mean some legitimately troubling underarm moisture. I quickly panicked that people would see me differently, that ex-coworkers and extended family members would find out I was crazy, or worse, fragile and weak.
In reality, the reaction was beautiful. Love, comments, texts, calls, and private messages from friends and total strangers. The sharing of stories similar to mine. Admissions of pain and stress and worry. Each new comment filled my heart.
But none of that is the point. The point is what I learned: I am not unique. As alone as I’ve felt all these years, I had no idea how far I was from being the only one. In fact, it swings ridiculously the other way. Most of us seem to be struggling. No one actually needed me to tell them that depression sucks, that anxiety is crippling or that OCD is exhausting. And yet, there still seemed to be an intense appreciation for verbalizing it in raw detail.
I constantly see articles about the millions of people experiencing mental illness. It’s easy to find definitions, general symptoms and tips for loved ones. It’s also dull and uninspired.
“Signs of Depression: Feeling excessively low. Change in moods. Avoiding social activities.”
Yes, technically that stuff happens, but it’s a gross oversimplification for how I felt during my deepest, darkest moments. My thoughts and feelings were alive. They ruled my life. They suffocated and plagued me. I never once thought “Wow, I’m feeling excessively low today.” No, I was drowning in panic on the street at 8am thinking, “How am I going to make it another 30 years at a job if every day feels this impossible? What the hell is the point of any of this? Why am I here? Why is life so pointless?” The definitions don’t do the experiences justice. They don’t even come close.
I sought treatment because of the way I felt and the fact that those feelings interrupted my ability to get through life, not because I fit a list of symptoms. But we don’t address the actual thoughts and feelings of mental illnesses publicly. And by that I mean, the troubling, embarrassing, uncomfortable, raw and honest sensations and experiences. We need to. Not just to get rid of the stigma, but to get it out, to be heard and understood. It’s just so lonely and dangerous otherwise.
I hate to admit that mental illness as a phrase still sounds scary and psychotic to me, but it does. Based on what I saw and heard growing up, those words trigger an image of crazy people screaming at strangers on the street or talking to themselves while twitching. But I’m living it, and it’s so much more nuanced, sneaky and complex than that. It’s so many of us. It’s everywhere. It has to be discussed in depth and with honesty.
What kept me isolated for so long was not being able to explain what I was feeling and what I needed. I have found a lot of relief in prescribed treatment, but also in simply writing down and sharing what I feel. Seeing my mother nod her head in understanding helps me to feel less alone. Sharing my path to help a friend find her own treatment makes me feel useful. I’m doing what I can to work through this, one day at a time.
Maybe, if we can continue to talk honestly about what we think and feel, no matter how weird, embarrassing or scary it is, we won’t feel so alone. And maybe, eventually (hopefully), if enough of us share, we can just get used to how weird, embarrassing and scary all of us actually are. And be okay with that as the new normal. Because it already is, we just don’t talk about it.
Originally published at medium.com