I'm A Survivor, Pt. I
Hi, everyone. My name is Nessa. I have a major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But I'm also something more. I'm a SURVIVOR. I thought I would take the next three blogs and describe what it means to be a survivor. For the first one, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I'm going to give you a glimpse of what it's like to live with one, and then three mental health illnesses. I have to warn you: it's going to be heavy. But if you're going to get a chance to know me, I believe you have to know the ugly parts as well as the beautiful parts of me. And even see how those ugly parts make up how beautiful of a soul I can really be. Are you ready? Here we go.
I've always had a troubling childhood, which leads to even more troubling adolescence. I was abused at home, bullied in high school, and just living a teenage nightmare. I'll come out and say it right now: I was emotionally, verbally, and sometimes physically abused by my father and sister for much of my life. Add that to the bullying and feeling like an outsider, it was pretty bad. But I'll save the details of the abuse for my next blog. For now, let's get back to the matters at hand. I was a sophomore in high school when my mom started noticing that things were different. I was not sleeping well, I lost interest in the things that brought me joy, I was constantly acting emotional, and I was struggling in school. She took me to a psychologist to see what was going on. And that's when I was diagnosed with depression. When I first heard the news, it was as if there was a bad taste in my mouth. There was no way that I could have depression. I'm normal, aren't I? I felt shame and discouraged. It was as if the person I was all those years ago was replaced with someone that I didn't recognize. To add to the misery, I had started to take medication, but none of them worked. One of them caused me to miss my period one time, and another made me violently ill. After a while, we stopped the medication and decided to move forward without it. I thought I was making progress in high school shortly after my diagnosis, but then life intervened yet again. In my junior year, my mom had lost her job, my sister dropped out of college, and all of the stress and rage exploded to a new high. However, my schoolwork and involvement in theatre kept me busy, but not always in a good way. Again, that's for my next blog. Once I got into college, my depression ended up returning, even after transferring to another university after my freshman year. Add that to an explosive episode of emotional and verbal abuse from my sister, and the constant stress of schoolwork, it wasn't pretty. I was losing interest in things again. I struggled with falling asleep and staying asleep. I was emotional on a regular basis. Memories of the abuse kept replaying in my head. In other words, I was living in hell. After a visit with the doctor and psychologist on campus, I had a new diagnosis to add: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once again, there was shame and anger. But also confusion. I didn't think normal people could get PTSD. I only thought that was reserved for soldiers fighting on the front lines. But it all made sense: the worst, or traumatic, memories of my past were being replayed constantly in my head. A simple tone of voice brought me back to when I was a little girl when I was belittled for acting out. A sit-down conversation over something serious brought me back to when I was disciplined and threatened to get a spanking. It was all there, but at the same time, it didn't make sense. How can a normal person like myself get two diagnoses of mental health illnesses? Once again, I was placed on medication. But this time, I tried to rebel against taking any of them. "I didn't want to become dependent on them." "They don't work for me." But then I heard something that was repeated several years after graduating college: "They're a little boost to help you through the day." Gee, I never thought of that before (or if I did, at this point, there was little doubt that I needed the extra boost for my college career and life in general). So, I acquiesced and was placed on the medication. Again, I had to make changes to see which ones worked and which ones didn't. But I eventually found the right one. Things were a little better, but not by much. I really hit a new low after college. My dad was abusing me again, and my depression and PTSD were ramped up again. Finally, after spending our lives in the Midwest, my mom and I moved to the East Coast. But even still, the move and trying to pick up and start over again was perhaps the greatest challenge yet. It wasn't until several years later that I found a clinic to go to that I was once again talking about being uninterested in things that once brought me pleasure, constantly emotional, memories being replayed over and over again, and even thoughts of hurting myself. What comes after 2? You guessed it. 3. I was now diagnosed with a whopping three mental health disorders: major depressive disorder, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Much of these details will be made clear in the next two blogs. But right now, I want to talk to you about what it feels like having three illnesses. Many people ask you to describe what it's like, and the best way to put it is like this: It's like having overwhelming sadness combined with memories being replayed over and over again combined with your mind constantly working overtime all in one. And it doesn't have to be equilateral. More often than not, I can have days where my mind is on overdrive when I'm trying to accomplish so many things in a single day. Or there are days when I hear a song or see a show or see a picture I get taken back to the exact moment the trauma began and I can't get away from it right away. Or there are times when something I wanted to be didn't happen and you can't help but feel so sad that it's hard to snap out of it. The anxiety can be things that are plausible, but some can be downright silly. But here's the thing many people may not understand: the anxious thoughts make sense to the person feeling the way they do, even if it may not make sense 100% of the time. The same with depression - it can over things that make sense, but sometimes it can be over little things that many of you may not understand. But it matters to us. PTSD is a little different. Think of an event or instance that haunted you for a very long time, and it's on a constant repeat. The cause of the repetition? It can be something as simple as a song, a smell, or something you see. Or it can be as complex as the tone of someone's voice, how the environment is similar to what you first experienced, or even what the person is wearing. I often think of a video cassette full of memories, with that one specific being rewound and replayed over and over and over again. And it has no intention of stopping. You feel like you're living, but in reality, you're not really living at all. You're not really there. You smile to hide all of the pain inside. You say "I'm fine" to throw others off and not let them get suspicious. You think of every possible excuse to not go out with friends because you feel like crap. You want to cry over the most insignificant things, but somehow, they make a big difference to you. You get angry over a silly reason and lash out at the unintended party. You feel like the times you do speak up about what you're going through, you are a burden to your family and friends. You wish they would just "get it," but they just don't. You cringe every time someone says "get over it." You try to occupy your thoughts away from the pain, but it always seems to come back to you a hundredfold. You want things to be normal again, and yet, you don't know what it looks like other than it being better than this. You want to heal so badly, but don't know how to take that first step. You sometimes wish that maybe it's better if I'm not there in their lives at all. Welcome to my world. For a long time, I didn't want the medication. I didn't want to become too dependent on whenever I do get better and don't need it anymore. But the fact of the matter is, it helps provide a boost to your mental and emotional well-being. For a while, I thought that if I kept on getting better, I wouldn't have to take so many medications. The most I took for a while was four different medications. Now, I'm only on two. But the bottom line is this: they're helping me make my days more manageable and not be so out of control. They're helping me give a boost to reclaiming normalcy, whatever that may look like. They're helping me combat the symptoms. It's a sort of like an extra aid to help not become so overwhelmed by the illnesses, and it helps me sleep much better, too! Just watch out for when you've been taken off a certain medication. The withdrawal symptoms are murder! Nausea, dizziness, loss of balance. YIKES! Sure, there are times when I wish I don't have to take them at all. But I can tell you right now that I would be in a worse place if I didn't have the medication and other resources to help me navigate through this. Resources like therapy and counseling, for instance. Having someone on the other end of this who knows what you're going through and talks you through the frustration of this crazy thing called life with mental health illnesses. It does make a difference. But again, that's for another blog.
The funny thing about today's blog is that I came across a comment yesterday evening that made my blood boil. One actress I really enjoy - Patti Murin - is not only very talented but is also very open about her mental health, specifically her anxiety. This particular comment was directed at her, and it said that the reason that she talks about her anxiety is for attention. (sigh) Look out, I'm about to get on my soapbox again. It's people like you who are part of the reason why people like us with mental health illnesses and disorders are trying to break the stigma surrounding them. You either just don't get it or you are too ignorant to care. We're not doing it for attention or sympathy. We're doing it because we want people to understand that this is a problem affecting millions of people and there needs to be more done to address what can be done to help them out. We're doing it because we want it to be normalized in schools, workplaces, homes, public places, and everywhere we go. We're doing it because we're tired of being misunderstood and being put off. We're doing it because we want our voices heard for those who are scared or angry with their own diagnosis. We're doing it because people like you are either narrow-minded or ignorant or both and have to get it through your numb skulls to see that it is not going away. What does normalizing mental health look like for me? It's seeing therapists and counselors in schools speaking one-on-one with those who have illnesses or disorders. It's families showing unconditional love, being open, understanding, and respectful with one another instead of saying "get over it!" and showing unconditional love in the process. It's workplaces offering spaces and times for those with the illness or disorders to take a minute, however long it may be. It's pharmaceutical companies offering these medications for an affordable price instead of having individuals having to choose between maintaining their mental health or putting food on the table. It's where EVERYONE, celebrity or not, can discuss this without shame. It's where all of us can be there for those struggling with the illnesses and disorders in solidarity, and to show them that they're not alone. I have always admired people who spoke out about what they're going through, the bad with the good. This is no exception. I want to join the countless others who have come before me and are with me to do the same. Things need to change because let's face it, change is the only constant. We can't stay in the same place all our lives because you will never move forward, and that's the only way to go. (gets down from soapbox) Before we end, I want to stress that I'm doing so much better now with the weekly therapy sessions, medication, exercising, acting, surrounding myself with like-minded individuals, and even learning to love and forgive myself. I'm in a much better place now than I was over 16 years ago. What will it look like for me to be completely off of medication or have it to a point where my life is normal again? That's something I'd rather not think about right now. But if I did, it would be really nice. In all honesty, however, I'm happy for the medication doing its part to help me manage my symptoms. And even so, my life is really starting to get back to normal now. But it's a NEW normal. One where the toxic people in my life are no longer welcome. One where I'm pursuing a career I am passionate about, and I'm learning and growing each and every day with the knowledge I receive. One where I'm establishing boundaries on what's okay and what's not okay. One where I'm comfortable in my own skin. One where I'm slowly starting to live my life the way I want to live it, with God as my guide. One where I know I am loved. One where I'm slowly realizing that I'm safe. One where I can make new, happier memories. One where my bad, ugly parts are accepted along with the good parts. And sometimes those can bring out the true beauty from within. Hi, everyone. My name is Nessa. I have a major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But I'm also something more. I'm a SURVIVOR.