Removing The Stigma Around Mental Illness
More than 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and given counseling and medicine to help. The truth of the matter was that I had it long before that. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I was not battling my own personal demons.
That first paragraph was not easy to write. In fact, this is the first time anyone outside my very- inner circle knows about it. I did tell my boss before writing this, but considering I work for National Telecommuting Institute (NTI@Home), which helps Americans with disabilities find jobs, including those with mental health issues, I was not worried about the reaction on the job, unlike other places where I have worked where there would have been issues.
At those other places and in life, I have tried to hide and give the impression my life is all rainbows and lollipops. I am always a positive, chin-up person.
That is part of the deadly stigma of the disease. If I had broken my nose or even had the flu, I would not have a problem telling everyone. Mental illness is different.
Right now, I have learned how to prevent it from getting out of control and can stop it, but I am tired physically and emotionally. I am tired of pretending. I have this thing that often comes out of nowhere and takes over my brain and body for weeks, days, hours, and if I am extremely lucky, just a few minutes before I win the battle. Mostly, I am just mad about it.
I do not know what the reaction to this is going to be from the outside world in writing this, and that is a big part of dealing with mental illness. You always worry that others will think differently of you, and you will somehow become weaker in their minds because you have this thing you cannot control.
On the one hand, if nobody asks me about this after reading this, I will be very happy, which is blasphemy for a writer to say. But I have long lived with the hope that no one ever asks me, so I will never have to tell them.
While I have not been talking about my disease, I applaud others who speak out and help others, but a small part of it, was until now, is they do it, so I do not have to.
Instead, until now, my focus had become pretty good at hiding it.
In the past, I worked a lot, so I could cover for the times when I cannot. People would say he is just tired and burned out from work.
I used self-deprecating humor appeared to be a crazy-mind professor type at times, so I was viewed as eccentric, and avoid situations where the stressors come in.
All in all, it is a lot of work and very tiring to deal with it when you are hiding it.
There were some days that I was so beat from fighting against it that I just collapsed when I got home. Before I started mostly working at home, there were a lot of nights the demons took over as soon as I got to the parking lot, and there would be a wrestling match before I was able to drive home safely.
There were other times I made a mad dash for the bathroom to hide while the feeling was washing over me. There was more than a day or two when because of a “stomach issue” I was not able to get out of bed.
With help from a series of therapists, I have fortunately learned to identify when depression and anxiety are lurking and go through a series of things to stop them. I keep positive letters from people on my desk and interact with other people by finding out how they are doing, which takes my mind away from my things. Helping others, as I do at NTI@Home, helps me stay upbeat and keep the demons away.
Sometimes, I even do math (hate it) and remember the starting lineups of long-forgotten baseball teams to keep my mind active and other thoughts away.
What I have learned in a lifetime is that everyone is different with this. What works for me may not work for you, but then again, it might, so here is what I do:
- Watch the coffee intake. It makes me nervous and jumpy, especially if I drink it throughout the day.
- Make sure I take breaks and walk around. I have learned that I will not miss much by stepping away for a minute.
- Sleep and exercise are important to me. When my defenses are down because I am not at full strength, I am not going to be able to fight it off as quickly.
- To-do lists and scheduling help me avoid anxiety. If I know what is expected, it does not stress me out when things come up at work I have to handle.
- Eating is very important to me in controlling my illness. I tend to overeat when I am depressed or stressed, so staying on a food schedule is a big key for me.
With medicine and the counseling and understanding the triggers, my depression and anxiety have improved greatly. Now I get mad when the demons appear, but I know better how to handle it, so things do not spiral as quickly as they used to.
My last step, which turned out to be the hardest one, was to stop avoiding talking about my depression and anxiety. I have done this in the last 750 words or so.
In a way, I am not in hiding anymore, and it feels pretty awesome to tell the truth.
(Mike Hardman is the media relations specialist at National Telecommuting Institute (NTI@Home) helping Americans with disabilities find at-home job opportunities. If you are looking for a job, go to www.ntiathome.org.)