Last March, my literary agency celebrated its birthday by holding a charity auction to benefit multiple sclerosis, and I wrote about why that was special to me, since I have a grandmother with the disease.
This year, they’re holding a similar auction to benefit mental health research — actually, several auctions throughout the month — and my reason for promoting it is even more personal.
This is a hard and weird blog post to write, because I’m still getting used to the idea of acknowledging it out loud. I strongly feel, though, that only openness will combat the stigma, and I have a responsibility to help that as much as I can. So here goes: Since last October, I’ve been in treatment for anxiety and depression.
Part of the challenge in treating mental health is that, even when folk come forward and ask for help, it can be hard to figure out what the cause-and-effect is. For me, I’ve got comorbid conditions, and in my case, anxiety seems to trigger depression. I get obsessively fixated on something — some problem, something that is going wrong or could go wrong, some person in my life, some scenario — and if I can’t fix it immediately, I end up in this destructive spiral where I can’t think of anything else. My brain tells lies. It magnifies problems far out of proportion, it tampers with my ability to moderate my emotional responses, and it convinces me that because I can’t handle one thing, I can’t handle anything. That’s where the depression starts, eating away at my sense of self-worth. It’s an ugly spiral, and I’ve never before been able to pull my nose up out of it. I’ve always just had to ride it out and hope that not too much got destroyed in the interim.
I can look back at my life and know that I should’ve gotten this treatment a long, long time ago. I can see this pattern going back to high school. There have been months at a time, sometimes close together, sometimes years apart, where I just can’t brain correctly. Everything I think of is a worst-case scenario, and when your mind is doing that to you, it tends to have some pretty wretched effects on your emotions. My defence mechanism isn’t avoidance, as is often the case with anxiety disorders — rather, I steel myself to try and perform as perfectly as possible so that no one will guess anything’s wrong, sometimes re-exposing myself to stressors just to prove I can handle it. Neurologically, over time this quite literally shreds your brain’s ability to process correctly. If it goes on long enough, I start having panic attacks.
You would think that alone would be a signal that my body and brain were screaming for me to pay attention to them, but it was actually reading Wil Wheaton’s stuff about how depression lies that convinced me to go seek something out. I’m so glad I did. I walked in and, after discussing my various symptoms, told the doctor, “I think I may be approaching a nervous breakdown,” and she said, “Honey, you’re in the middle of one.” I was so determined to put on a strong face and stay positive for the sake of others that I couldn’t admit I was coming apart at the seams.
Why didn’t I seek help before? A lot of reasons. I didn’t think my problems were “bad enough”. I still managed to dress myself and go to work, after all. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Who was I to think that I needed anything special? So much was going so well in my life, what did I have to be worried or sad about? I was embarrassed (and still am, a bit). I was skeptical that anything could be done to help. I wasn’t sure I could handle the expense of office visits and medication. There were, in my head, a lot of reasons not to seek help, and they were loud enough that I couldn’t listen to the reasons to get it.
I’m not “better” — I still have bad days and emotional outbursts, as everyone does, and figuring out the correct medication cocktail can take some time — but I can handle things now. I can pull out of a nosedive. I don’t automatically assume the worst. I get less fixated on what I can’t control, and if my emotions do get the better of me, I recover more quickly.
It also helps me as a writer. I know that some people fear medicating mental health issues because they worry it will somehow deaden their sensibilities, stem the flow of creativity, grey things out. But what it can do is clear the clouds. Getting help has allowed me to focus and to re-access the willpower and the determination I need to finish projects. Writing is hard enough without having to clear extra hurdles before I even sit down at the computer!
Still, though, the stigma — I know that when I finish writing this blog post, I’m going to hem and haw for days before posting it. Which is ridiculous, really — I don’t feel shame because I’m nearsighted and have to go to a doctor and buy medical aides to fix that. I don’t feel shame for taking vitamins to help my body function well. I shouldn’t feel any shame just because my brain needs some help, too. I also know I’ll end up deleting and re-writing the more personal bits about how the anxiety and depression feel to me, thinking, “No one cares” or “That exposes vulnerability, don’t do that.” But I also know that… it might help someone else, to read it and recognize it. That’s the real thing that will get me to post it, in the end.
Mental health research won’t just give science better ways to help those who are struggling, it will also help to de-stigmatize the diseases so that more people feel comfortable getting help. I’m so, so glad that Fuse Literary has decided to make this the focus of this year’s charity auctions.
So – if you’re in the writing and querying trenches, or if you want a great present for someone who is, I encourage you to bid on a critique! All of the money will go to a truly excellent cause, and one that affects so many of us — if not you, then absolutely someone you know. Multiple someones. Too many someones.
But it can get better.