As many of you likely know, the month of May is Mental Health Month. It might be because of the kinds of people I follow (people like me who inspire me daily for overcoming their mental illnesses and living and creating regardless of their disease(s)), but I’ve seen lots of long, impassioned, heartfelt Instagram captions this month. So many, in fact, I am to the point where I’m asking, “Who DOESN’T have a mental illness?” While I don’t really know how many people I follow suffer from mental illness and can’t tell based on a few paragraph-long captions here and there, I can tell that these captions are only made possible by our society becoming more aware of the importance to be vocal about our mental health struggles. Which is why I’ve chosen to seriously write about a topic some people would be hesitant to put out unto the world. I say “seriously” because if you’re on Twitter, you will see hundreds of jokes about mental illness on your Timeline DAILY. Some of them are really funny, proving that humor is a great coping mechanism, but tweeting about your interactions with your therapist certainly is not solving anyone’s problems. Let’s get started with some historical information.
I had a great childhood. Like really awesome. I have a wonderful family, never had to worry about anything, did really well in school, and enjoyed lots of different aspects of my life. I remember being bullied a little bit in elementary and middle school due to my weight but it never resulted in what I would call disordered eating (though I did know how to count calories as a 9 year old). But that was all! I had “nothing” to be depressed about. Until one day I didn’t need anything to be depressed about–I just was because of the dark and intrusive thoughts flowing through my brain. My earliest memory of wanting to harm myself came when I was about 8 or 9, maybe 10. Growing up in the country came with certain privileges–a big backyard, a swimming pool, a four-wheeler I knew how to drive long before a car. It was one, sunny afternoon riding that four-wheeler that I had the fleeting thought to run it into our aboveground swimming pool. I don’t know how this thought came about and I don’t remember any part of that day besides barreling towards the swimming pool and making a sharp right turn before driving into its side. And then the thought was gone. But it wasn’t gone forever.
Years before I started experiencing depression though, while in high school, I self-diagnosed myself (which many years later became an actual diagnosis) with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. If you aren’t familiar with PMDD, picture PMS but amplified: more tears and you’re affected by it for longer (mine normally sets in about a week and half before I start my period). According to the Office on Women’s Health PMDD affects up to 5% of women of childbearing age. PMDD has many, if not all, of the same symptoms as depression with the added bonus of physical pain like cramps, bloating, breast tenderness, headaches, and joint or muscle pain. I know I especially suffer from BACK PAIN during this and it can be rough. If there’s ever a bright side to mental illness, it’s that PMDD symptoms aren’t forever. Like I said, they last about a week where I am super emotional, experience stark mood swings and am generally just easily pissed off and prone to confrontation. Once my period starts, these symptoms disappear within one or two days.
In addition to PMDD, thanks to my genetics I also have major depressive disorder, which comes and goes in what I call depressive periods. These periods are characterized by basic symptoms of depression: feeling depressed and hopeless, losing interest in things that usually make me happy, I socialize less, I experience insomnia during the night but take long naps during the day (sometimes when I’m not even planning on taking a nap), I cry and cry and cry at the simplest of things (such as, “Hi Rachel! How are you?”), and thoughts of death and suicide. I simply become a different person. I have experienced these, sometimes month long periods, off and on since 2015. The worst depressive period to date took place during my spring semester and summer break of my sophomore year of college. It was horrendous, soul-crushing, sleepless and I longed to kill myself. This is also when I a started self-harming/cutting. There were periods where I cut daily, sometimes more than once a day because it became an addictive, compulsive behavior. While cutting hasn’t been a huge problem within the past year since my mental health has improved, anytime I experience an unwanted emotion that I don’t know how to compartmentalize, I’m at risk to self-harm. It is an incredibly difficult habit to break and at the time I was ignoring any alternative behaviors offered to me by my therapist or my best friend who has a Masters in Professional Counseling. Still to this day, there is not much that will stop me from cutting if I get the seldom urge but there are LOTS of resources online which I would suggest finding and printing off when you don’t feel the urge to cut. That way once you feel the urge you’ll already have that piece of paper with alternatives. Project LETS is a good place to start.
Lastly, after going through an incredibly toxic and emotionally abusive relationship in 2017, I had symptoms of PTSD for the months following the breakup and man, I gotta say, I was the lowest of the low from December 2017 to sometime in February 2018. It was miserable, I was so hurt and my trauma manifested in…really weird ways. As I will touch on later, one of the side effects of my antidepressants was not being able to cry or not being able to cry as much. Instead of crying, I took to throwing up. I was throwing up daily, multiple times a day. It became especially frequent in the morning…when I was brushing my teeth. SO THEN, I gagged myself every. single. time. I brushed my teeth for about 4 months. TALK ABOUT WEIRD, RIGHT?? Anyways, these symptoms disappeared through the passage of time. I isolated myself to a great extent during most of this time because that’s almost what I had been doing during the relationship because I spent all my time with him so after it was over, I had less friends to surround myself with but the real ones were there for me and are a big reason why I am still around.
MENTAL HEALTH AS IN INTEGRATED PART OF MY LIFE
Because my mental health is a part of me, I have to be careful with how I let it impact my friendships, my relationship with my S/O, school, work, and my family. Not to brag but mental illness does run in my family so out of the things I listed above, it is easiest to navigate my mental health when surrounded by family because they’re understanding and we share common experiences. As for the other parts of my life, my mental health can certainly take a toll on these people and experiences. A lot of my friends don’t suffer from the same mental illnesses that I do, which is great for them, but it can often lead to some miscommunication and misunderstandings. In high school, I lost my three best friends because we grew apart and part of that was because I kept retreating inward. My feelings about myself and my intrusive thoughts consistently had me turning down invitations to hang out with them and it got to the point where they knew Rachel would say no so why even ask? Now that I’m older I’ve found these kinds of situations happen way less and I have friends who are a bit more persistent in getting me out of the house (probably because I am more open and vocal about my mental health). However, mental health can wreck some friendships if you’re too open. My college best friend of three years stopped talking to me after we got back to the U.S. from studying abroad together and we haven’t spoken since. Ultimately, I don’t know when she started disliking me but I knew those feelings were there for a long time. This still hurts me so I won’t talk too much about it but I do think my openness with her about my mental illness, self-harm, or my overall behavior is what drove her away. While I do think honest and clear communication with your friends is important, if you have a mental illness, perhaps it’s best to keep somethings between you and your therapist…which brings me to my next point about mental health and your significant other.
YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER IS NOT YOUR THERAPIST!!!!!!!!!!! DO. NOT. consistently come to them with the problems you present to your therapist because it is way too much. ESPECIALLY if both you and your partner suffer from mental illness. Sharing like that is a FastPass+ to a toxic and co-dependent relationship. DO NOT DO IT. That is the best piece of advice I can give you. You partner can’t fix you, don’t let them try! GET A THERAPIST. And if you can’t afford a therapist, separate your problems among your friends and talk to them this way (as in, one issue per one friend). This way you can still talk about your mental state without overwhelming the people in your life. Even though you shouldn’t be burdening your partner with your mental illness, they should at least understand what you’re experiencing and be willing to love and support you even when the going gets tough.
As for school and work, my mental illness was probably amplified by the stress of school, which is why right now my mental health is doing phenomenal so to say I’m dreading law school for this reason is an understatement lol. All I have to say about this is that it’s truly a balance. It exists and it is hard to discover but there is a balance between school/work and your mental health. Finding that balance may mean you need to take mental health days (same as calling in with the stomach bug in my opinion), you need to take less hours, or you need to be less committed to your extracurriculars. The point is that there is basically nothing worth sacrificing your mental health to the point of no return. And those are BIG FACTS.
I started seeing a therapist June 2017 after hitting rock-bottom and that’s when things really started to turn around for me (I originally had gone to the counseling services offered at WKU, which are free after a one-time payment of I think $20 but had a terrible experience. I think I was in there crying for eight minutes and the lady was like, you’re fine? I was in the waiting room for longer than I was with a counselor). I found a female therapist online and scheduled an in-take session with her that involved filling out a stack of paperwork detailing my medical history, my symptoms, and what I wanted to get out of therapy. She did work at a religiously affiliated practice but I made it clear that I didn’t want any religion to be involved in my therapy and it was never a problem. During my worst periods, I saw her once a week and paid my $30 copay gladly (I am forever grateful I had the financial situation I did to be able to afford therapy!). When I moved back to Bowling Green after studying abroad, I saw her once or twice a month just to talk about the stress of 24 credit hours and my inability to avoid procrastination. Therapy helped me the most with my depression and my self-harm. Talking about your thoughts and feelings helps so much to understand them. When I wasn’t spilling my guts, we worked through my issues through different forms of art and hands-on activities.
In addition to an hour long therapy session, when I went in June 2017 my therapist and I decided I needed medication. This was because I was truly not functioning like a healthy, mentally well human being. I was suffering from insomnia, I had lost interest in almost everything that made me happy, I spent my time self-harming, and I seriously had a bad case of depression memory–I was essentially running on auto-pilot. I had started a new job that summer and some days I would leave the office to run errands and make it back and not even remember leaving. I needed an anti-depressant to balance my behavior. Because I only saw a therapist at the time and not a psychiatrist, I went to a general practitioner in Bowling Green and she prescribed me Zoloft (Sertraline). A year later, I would see a psychiatrist when I felt the Zoloft had stopped working and was switched to Celexa (Citalopram). I stopped taking medication in May 2018 though and haven’t needed it since (but that’s not to say I will never need it again).
Self-treatment is also a big part of caring for your mental health. For example, when your therapist gives you homework, do it. I journal a TON! Journaling is like a free therapy session without talking. And if you don’t want it to be free, head to a coffee shop and get an iced chai and journal there. I’ve written about this video once before but I’ll mention it again: the HBO documentary called My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It) by Elizabeth Swados. This is such an excellent video on how her depression manifested, her suicidal ideation and her treatment. Depression (and mental illness) is different for everyone but this video really resonated with me when I watched it at 3 AM one night on Tumblr. This video gave me the push I needed to finally see a therapist so I am grateful to it. I searched for the free version I had found years ago on Tumblr with no luck but if you have HBO, you should be able to watch it and I suggest you do.
MEDICATION + SIDE EFFECTS
Okay back to the medication because that seems to be everyone’s hot topic. When I started talking Zoloft in June 2017, I was prescribed a 50 mg dosage (it generally comes in two dosages to start– 25 and 50 but can go up to 200). I really, truly felt like Zoloft worked for me. I felt like me again. I was content. I was able to function normally. I was living my life again. But when school started in August, things began to regress. However, when I talked to my doctor about upping my dosage, she said no. I personally think she was wrong and that I could have benefitted from a larger dosage especially considering the toxic relationship I would get into a few weeks later but nonetheless, Zoloft really did work for me until about March 2018. At that point, I felt as though its affects had worn off on me. Maybe it’s like how when you use Germ-x too much the germs gain immunity and aren’t killed by the Germ-x anymore (is that true? or is it an urban legend my elementary school teachers made up so kids wouldn’t stand around pumping Germ-x on their hands all day?).
After I got back from Argentina, I still felt like I needed to be on anti-depressants (to be honest, I was scared not to be on them) but my prescription had run out while I was living in Berea and not Bowling Green. So I had stopped taking Zoloft when I saw my psychiatrist in Richmond (I say this because you’re supposed to wait about 14 days between taking two different SSRIs). My session with him went like this: I said, “I am feeling okay…but like maybe not okay enough to not need the extra help” and he said, “Let’s start you on this one instead.” “This one” was Celexa with a 10 mg dosage, although the general initial dosage is 20 mg and goes up to 40 mg. I only took Celexa for about three months. Not only did I not really need it, Celexa did increase suicidal ideation for me so it just wasn’t worth taking, especially when I felt like I didn’t need to be on anti-depressants anymore.
Because I was on Celexa for a such a short period of time, the only side-effect I really experienced was increased thoughts of suicide. With Zoloft on the other hand, I experienced a wide-array of side effects which include: excessive yawning (seriously. Plus I had TMJ so yawning causes my jaw to pop and this was def the worst side effect), decrease in appetite, dizziness, sweaty sweatiness (constantly), I was more impulsive in my decision making, and lastly NO CRYING!!! Which was by far the BEST SIDE EFFECT EVER! Going from crying every day, multiple times a day, to not crying at all even when I was sad was a BLESSING. I loved it. It was amazing.
Everyone’s situation with mental illness is different. Everyone’s path to recovery is different. Healing isn’t linear, but it certainly requires work and effort by you. You also deserve to be here and live your life on your own terms. I know we’ve heard this a million times, but suicide isn’t the answer. I am so happy I am still here.
If you are struggling from depression or other mental illnesses, help is out there. If you need immediate help, consider calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1(800)273-8255. Lastly, I am always here for anyone who needs a helping hand. DM me on social media @literallyrachel or email me and I will do my best to connect you with resources that best fit your situation. You don’t have to go through this struggle alone.