Alright I’ll bite.
I actually wrote this months ago, figuring I would publish it when the time seemed right. Robin Williams’ devastatingly sad death this week has resulted in a lot of people weighing in on the subject of mental illness. Everyone’s got something to say about it, it seems. And while I’ve got my own opinions and thoughts about everyone else’s opinions and thoughts, I believe that one of the most important things for someone who is struggling is to know they’re not alone. To know they’re not crazy. So I’ve decided the time is right to share my story.
I struggle with anxiety and depression.
I guess I’ve had traces of it throughout my life. I can remember going through a season my junior year in high school where I was really struggling, but thought it was a spiritual thing. Honestly, I thought most problems were a “spiritual thing”. I couldn’t concentrate in school or on my homework as my mind whirled in circles pretty much all of the time. I don’t really remember what the thoughts were exactly, but they were Life felt very dark and hopeless. I was convinced, for a while, that I had somehow lost my salvation, which for a girl who was really involved in the youth group and tried to do everything right so God and others would love me, was completely devastating. I figured I would just keep going to church, suffering with my secret all alone, since I couldn’t bear to tell anyone.
That whole school year was tough. My grades suffered and I suffered. In silence. My mom sensed something was off and would write me notes of encouragement. But I couldn’t explain what was going on in my head.
Eventually, somehow, I came out of it and felt ok again.
But four years later, my junior year in college, another bout hit. My mind whirled uncontrollably, I was extra sensitive and emotional, and I thought I might be gay, just because I once thought a girl was pretty. I wasn’t attracted to girls sexually, but my mind caught on to the idea and fear took over. What if I was gay? Maybe that’s why I had never had a boyfriend. What would my parents think? And on and on it went. Again, my grades suffered and I suffered. Alone.
Eventually all of that passed again.
I would eventually learn that our bodies are cyclical, so it made sense that four years later, right on time, this scary darkness hit again.
Only this time it was worse.
I was living with my parents and working full time as a graphic artist. For a couple of months I had felt extra emotional, mind whirling… the same old routine. I lived in the land of what if’s, and it was torture. I was questioning everything about myself and everything I believed, which can sometimes be a good thing. But this wasn’t. Imagine a voice inside your head questioning every step you take and everything you’ve built your life on. That voice tearing down every bit of self confidence you had and paralyzing you with fear. And that voice never stops. It’s constant, going a million miles a minute.
All. Day. Long.
For months my stomach was in knots, my shoulders sore from the tension and I cried at the drop of a hat. I was suffering alright, but not as alone this time. I tried explaining to one of my friends what was going on in my head, but that wasn’t very helpful. I shared a little bit with my mom since she was questioning why I was crying all the time. She finally convinced me to go see the therapist at our church.
Although this was a fairly large church where it’s easy to be a number, I wasn’t. I had grown up there so I knew everyone on staff. Not only that, I was on the worship team, and had played leading roles in some of the church productions. So everyone knew who I was too. I met with the counselor a total of four times, not feeling like it was helping at all. I was embarrassed to be going to counseling, thinking that it somehow made me defective. One day I was sitting in the waiting area of the office, when one of the pastors walked through. Assuming I was there to see anyone but the therapist, he said “Hey Jen! I didn’t know you needed counseling!” My heart dropped as my face started turing red. He continued, “I guess I shouldn’t say that. What if you really were here for counseling?”
I didn’t go back.
A few weeks later my mom convinced me to talk with our neighbor’s daughter, Sue. She has known me since before I was born and I had been the flower girl in her wedding. As I sat, drinking hot chocolate, she told me a story I had never heard. It was her story of depression.
And it sounded a lot like me.
Depression. So that’s what this was. That word was both a relief and a blow. I was glad to put a name to what I was feeling. But depression? That sounds terrible. I don’t want people to know I have that! Besides, I’m not one of those people that can’t get out of bed.
Not yet at least.
A few weeks passed and I continued to suffer through each day. One day I went to work as usual, sitting down at my desk in a quiet room where no one talked to me. I sat alone with my thoughts for about an hour and a half. My mind whirled. I put my headphones on, hoping the music would drown out my thoughts. It didn’t. The thoughts overtook me. I started to cry, right there at my desk. I couldn’t sit there anymore, so I picked up my stuff and walked out the door.
When I got home, my mom asked what I was doing there. I told her I just couldn’t be at work. When I didn’t get up to go to work the next day my mom said, “I think you need to see someone. Today.” She started making phone calls and managed to find a therapist for me to see that day. She was so worried about me, she drove me herself. I cried through the whole session, verbal vomiting all over the therapist, all of the thoughts that plagued my mind. He nodded his head compassionately as I talked. The kindness in his eyes told me he understood. It told me I wasn’t crazy. I was struggling with depression, but the whirling thoughts and pit in my stomach was anxiety, something I didn’t even know was a “thing”.
That day he told me two things that filled me with hope. One was that I was going to be OK. The other was that God would use this somehow.
He was right.
Our weekly meetings helped. He gave me coping techniques to combat the thoughts that sometimes overwhelmed me. I learned that exercise gets the endorphins going, so every day after work I would go on a long, brisk walk. But I still struggled. When things didn’t seem to get much better, my therapist asked what I thought about trying medication. No way! It was bad enough that I was going to therapy, but taking medication…. that would absolutely mean I was weak, that I must not trust God enough and that something was seriously wrong with me.
So we kept on with therapy. I kept going for a year. Things started getting worse again. I was at my wits end. The subject of medication came up again and I jumped. If it would stop me from feeling this way, I would try anything. I was desperate.
I made an appointment with my doctor and she prescribed me an anti-depressant. I felt totally loopy and tired at first. I slept hard. Like dead to the world hard. But after a couple of days, I could almost think clearly again. I could pray again. And for the first time in over a year, I started to feel like myself again. It was a miracle! Why I hadn’t done this sooner?!?!?!
Medication really helped me as I learned the skills I needed to fight the anxiety and depression. And it can really be a fight sometimes. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed I just want to curl up in a ball and cry. Sometimes mustering up the energy to do normal everyday tasks seems like lifting the weight of the world. And a lot of the time I’m fine. I’ve learned how diet and exercise as well as supplements can help and I try to take care of myself.
I won’t bore you with the details of going off medication and then on and off and on again. I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life and I’m OK with that. Now at least. I used to think that I could be fine just using the skills I’d learned. And I was for a long time. But my brain just ain’t right and it needs a little help.
But one thing I do know is that God doesn’t waste anything. He is willing and able to use our pain to mold and shape our character. And it always seems as if He brings people into our lives that need what we’ve learned. I’ve met several people who are struggling with depression or anxiety and just feel crazy. They feel ashamed to go to therapy, but hearing my own battle gives them the extra nudge to take that step. I met a gal who knew that she was struggling with anxiety and depression and was suffering so much that her doctor was recommending medication. Her eyes were puffy from crying and lack of sleep and she asked me about my experience. She told me how she felt like if she took medication she wasn’t trusting God enough. Why is it that Christians that suffer this way believe this lie? Well that’s a whole other subject!
What I do know is that hearing that someone you know has gone this path before you, can often give you courage to take your next step. Whatever that is. I pray that if you are suffering, you will reach out. Please get the help you need.