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May 17th, 2004

My Struggles with Mental Illness

(Note: It's way long, but because of the content, I decided to post it all and with no editing.)

Struggles with Mental Illness

If you've been keeping up with my good friend Rose's trials as of late, you might have read about her decision to try out medication to help with the crushing anxiety and mild depression she's been suffering through. Another young girl that I talk to online, a teen who cuts and found me through my self-injury site, Bleeding Out the Pain was telling me that her mental-meds (as I call them) had been upped, and how she wasn't happy about it. I watched my sister take them for a few years, to help with social anxiety and I've seen her boyfriend struggle through trying to find the-one-that-works-for-him. He, along with his doctors, seem to have found the right pill and his quality of life, according to him, has improved drastically.

I've probably mentioned before that I'm an (unofficially) diagnosed mental/emotional wreck. I'm aware that I have problems, some psychiatrists I've visited have suggested bi-polar and/or borderline personality disorder. Never one for labels anyway, I'm content not to have an "official" diagnosis of my psychosis - I rather prefer just being "me"; even though "me" tends to be a little bit crazy.

Seeing so many people as of late going through mental/emotional struggles, and even reading Rachel powerfully professing her similar struggles, has brought all of this to the fore in my mind. I've never sat and combined all of my battles, looked at the entire mess of it as a whole; in fact, I rarely deal with those issues at all - preferring, instead, to chalk it up to "this is just who I am" and just dealing with it. But last night, during a phone conversation with my soulmate, I began to lay it all out before me and put to the test my thoughts, beliefs and musings on mental illness and where I fit into the big scheme of it all.

I truly believe such deep soul-searching is best shared; brought out and expressed. You never know who might be helped by reading what you've written, who might be going through the same struggles and confused in their own right. Besides, baring my soul is cathartic for me, believe it or not. As any recovering cutter will tell you, we're of the type that likes to "bring things out" rather than keeping them inside to fester. So it is with complete open honesty, warts and all, that I share with you my walk down the unstable road of mental illness and emotional distress. Perhaps you've been there, or can relate some - mayhaps you'll just think I'm a nut. I'm not worried about what people think; I'm interested, only, in reaching out to others that understand, and finally stepping up to the plate and admitting my own problems in the light of day.

It may not make much sense - I'm just going to go with it, so bear with me. Let's have at it, then:

I've always been somewhat of an emotional wreck. The happiest of children until I hit my teens, some sort of black cloud developed over me at that time. Puberty does that to people - to extremely passionate people, the effects are rather magnified. I was unhappy, and made sure that everyone around me was so as well. Misery loves company, after all.

I've never been one for blaming my family for my shortcomings. There comes a time, as an adult, that you have to take responsibility for who you have become. My family isn't the sanest, most ordinary bunch around - for which I'm thankful. But we've come to blows many times over the years; I having always been the "black sheep" of the brood. It is probable that some of my earlier problems stemmed from my family, when I lived with them. I did begin cutting to try and reach my alcoholic father - to convince him that his drinking was hurting us in tangible ways. But I don't blame him for that - cutting is something I would've done eventually and regardless. That or some other form of self-injury; I am my own worst enemy. It is true that the constant brow-beating was injurious to my self-esteem; but that's how my family is - we ruthlessly tease and berate one another. Making cruel and hurtful stabs, also, seems to run in our blood; I'm guilty of it myself. Yet I feel that I've conquered the self-esteem issue pretty well as I've grown, so I hold no blame there either. Since family seems to always be a dynamic in these things, I wanted to clear that up.

From 13-on it all went downhill. In case you weren't aware, I'm lactose intolerant - I can't digest milk products (cheese, ice cream, bread, etc.). The malady is a bit better known now, but back then not many people knew about it. All I, or my family, knew was that one day I started getting severe diarrhea; horrible, painful diarrhea that can only be compared to food poisoning. I had no clue that my body was unable to digest the lactose that was in just about everything I was eating. No one could figure out what was wrong with me, and those close to me begin to believe that I was dying of stomach cancer. I stopped eating - because doing so made me ill. I, seriously, lived off of Light Pringles. I dropped down to 99 lbs and looked as if the believed diagnosis just might be true. At that point, I didn't care. I was in pain constantly and truly felt death would be a welcome release from the hell I was living in. That I was existing in the black blanket of a deep depression would be putting it lightly. Two years later my paternal grandmother suggested that I might be lactose intolerant after reading about the affliction in a magazine. I bought some Lactaid pills and began testing the waters - it took a year for me to get it all straight; how much to take and with what foods. For that year, and the one after, I suffered through various stomach and gastric ailments - brought about, obviously, by having had severe diarrhea for two years. Though still in pain, and miserable, having a name to call my illness was a light in the darkness.

I got through it - and towards the end of that struggle, I cut myself for the first time. The first time was baby steps - really nothing. The next time was in a fit of rage that produced my very first (though not my last) scars. Those that know or have met me can attest to the vicious scars that cover both arms (and parts of my legs). They are not pretty and in no way inconspicuous - I scar out rather than in, and though some are faded, white lines, others are thick, pink, ropey marks that are impossible not to notice. A long-ago count had the total number at 18 - but I've added a few to the fray since, including my worst to date. I no longer cut on a whim, but the need is always there and so I will always call myself a "recovering cutter" - it's not something you ever truly get over.

The cutting went on, and into, my early adult life - which is when I really lost it. I can't say exactly what triggered my breakdown; my downward spiral to rock bottom. Like I said, I've always been extremely passionate - positively and negatively; nothing is ever pastel with me. Whether it was the overwhelming experience of my first love, the nagging fear that I knew he would leave me someday, or the anxiety that arose from my being unable to trust him, I slowly came unhinged during our three+ years together. Though I freely talk about, and admit, to my behavior during those times, it is still a bitter pill to swallow. I'm ashamed of how I acted, and how I treated my ex; I'm ashamed at myself for losing control. Without going into details about the mess our life had come to be at the end, suffice it to say that I was undeniably, at that time, crazy as a fucking loon. My parents, I've since learned, went to my ex and talked to him about getting me put away and getting me some help. There were times, not few, that he threw me over his shoulder and marched towards the door, with the intent of bringing me to the mental clinic and leaving me there. I had become so obsessed with him, and the fear of his leaving, that I never allowed him to leave my sight. He lost his job, because I wouldn't let him go to it. We lost everything because I couldn't work either - it got so bad that I couldn't breathe if he wasn’t in my presence. I lived in constant fear and panicked anxiety - watching his every move, sometimes afraid to fall asleep for the fear that he would sneak out on me. For all intents and purposes, he had every right to! My mind was in constant chaos and I was mentally and emotionally drained, exhausted and defeated. When he finally did end it, though it was horribly painful, I believe I was ready. I knew I couldn't take much more.

Six months later I had planned to kill myself. The date was to be March 7th, and I still have the notes that I wrote to each of my family members. I had no job, no life to speak of, and I was wretched. Everything was ready and planned, and on March 7th I intended to slit my wrists and end my miserable existence. I only intended to tell one person of my plan - my ex. We still saw each other every few weeks - no doubt not helping me one bit in my attempts to "get over him". On what was to be our last visit, I told him. He cried, said he couldn't stop me if that was what I wished, but that he hoped I would reconsider. He then did something that changed my life. He said I should, rather than kill myself, try and get some help. I insisted that I didn't need any help - that I was quite clear on my motives and reasons. He asked me, if I was so together, then what about my cutting. That, I informed him, was not a problem. I had it under control and could stop at any time. He simply, without saying another word, took one arm and begin counting my scars, out loud. He'd gotten way past 10 before he even started on the second arm, and I was in tears. Why that changed my perspective on my problem, I don't know. Perhaps I was no longer able to live in my fantasy world of denial with the brutal truth right in front of my face. The next day he left and I called my Mom (I was living with friends at the time) and asked her to come and get me. I admitted, for the first time, that I had a problem with cutting and I wanted to get help. The day after that I was enrolled in a daily group-therapy program that I began attending. I felt life deserved a second chance. Again, there was light in the darkness.

They say when one door closes, another opens. They also say that we often look so longingly on that closed door that we sometimes miss the new one swung wide open. Not long after I enrolled in therapy, my ex disappeared. No one knew where he'd gone, but I did. He'd left Louisiana - I knew it and felt it in my heart. Though it broke my heart with despair and pain when I realized it, I knew it was for the best. Without that door opening and shutting every few weeks in my life, I truly could begin to move on. Many doors begin to open for me as I took another stab at this thing we call life. I met my soulmate, and in the months following, I got a job and had moved in with two friends in the city.

I was happy for a few years, then this nightmare with my leg problems began, which has thrown me way back down into despair, anxiety and depression. That's where I'm at now in my life - it's been quite a long, strange trip.

It's not that I never tried to get help along the way; just that it was always a joke when I did. When I attended college (I only went for a semester and a half), just when I was first meeting my ex, I tried to go to see a psychiatrist at the college clinic. Obviously a doc-in-training, this fresh-faced kid (not but a few years older than myself), looked positively horrified when I showed him my scars and told him about my cutting. Not exactly what you want to see when you try to get help. This person could not help me, I thought, and I never went back. When the ex and I were together, I went to a free clinic here in Baton Rouge. I told them my problems - depression and anxiety and cutting and they determined I was somewhat suicidal. That's about as diagnosed as I've ever been. They sent me on my way with a 'scrip for some mental-meds that I no longer remember the name of. Did I mention that I'm sensitive to pills? Whatever this shit was, it had me, literally, tripping balls for 12 or so hours. The next two days I couldn't get out of bed because every muscle in my body was sore from the exertion of being tense while I was on the medication. I never took another, and never went back. Though I followed through with the aforementioned therapy I enrolled in at the end, I was out of there in two weeks. You see, I was ready to stop cutting, and that's all it really takes to stop most addictions; an intense desire to really stop. I didn't need much counseling. In those sessions it was suggested that I was likely bi-polar and co-dependent, and possibly even borderline. And that's about as official as it ever got. After leaving, they put me on Zoloft.

And here's where I entered the world of the millions of others diagnosed with mental problems and hopped up on happy pills. And it lasted about a month.

Yes, I was happy. Yes, I could handle things and, yes, life was better. But I wasn't me. The happiness and calm wasn't real, and I had turned into a pastel Shanna, rather than blood-red passionate Shanna. I got off the pills. I'm not saying my decision is for everyone or could even work for everyone. Some people do need the pills (shit, I probably do, too) and I don't think there's anything wrong with being on them. Please don't take me wrong on this. But for me, personally, I couldn't abide living life inside of a pill-bubble. I decided then and there that I was an emotionally unbalanced and rather crazy individual - but that was WHO I WAS and I had to learn to live with and around my problems and my nuances rather than masking them or trying to be someone or something I was not. Again, this was my decision and my thoughts - and it's not like that for everyone else. Perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps the quieter, more sane and calm Shanna that was on medication is the real Shanna. But I had to do what I felt was right for me, and being pastel didn't feel right at all.

I learned to live well being on an emotional roller-coaster. I was happy otherwise in my life and so what if I was crying one second and laughing the next? It was who I was. Some days I woke up angry, and others I woke up elated. Many days I was stressed and full of anxiety, but this, I told myself, was life. Life is stressful and hard - I just had to deal with it. I truly had found my "zen" spot.

Of course, life threw me another curve - it likes to do that. These problems with my leg have made me someone other than the strong, independent and emotionally able-to-handle-myself person I'd fought so hard to become. There were times I thought about going back on the pills, and there were times when I seriously considered ending it all. I've taken it all in stride, and just fight the fight every day instead. But it's hard, and I wouldn't call myself 'happy' these days in any way.

On the phone last nite my soulmate asked me why I always feel so "bad". He knows because he feels what I feel, and he wondered why all he ever felt coming from me was hurt, anxiety and depression. And I began to wonder - was I wrong about the meds? Would it be a wise idea to try them again, and see if they helped? He himself is an "officially diagnosed" ADD & ADHD, bipolar, borderline personality individual who also suffers from some sort of post traumatic stress syndrome. He gets it and he believes, from what he knows of me, that I suffer from the same or a few of the same.

The thing is, I've never liked to apply labels to myself. It's easier to think I'm just a little more messed up than the next guy and deal with it. If I say that I am these things, then they own me. Then everything I do I can just blame it on my illnesses rather than trying to work through it. Maybe I wouldn't do that, but that's what I think. It seems that everyone and his sister is bipolar or borderline or OCD these days. Are we all really that mental, or does the society we live in create such unstable living conditions that we just can't cope with this life? I don't know the answer. I know that myself and all of the wonderful people I know who do have these problems, or others, are not hypochondriacs or making it up. But I always wonder if people in the older days just handled life better - it was much simpler in many ways. Did they just have better control of their emotions and their minds? Or was everyone just undiagnosed and living very unhappily? They didn't smile in their photographs, so maybe that's it.

It's all very confusing to me, you see. I *know* that I have some mental problems - but if I own them and call them by name, it seems, somehow to me, that I make them all the more real. If I'm just "kinda crazy", that's one thing - it's just me and I can live with it. But if I'm "bipolar", that's something else. That's an illness, a condition of the mind that stops me from functioning like "normal" people and that I have no control over other than to take pills to live "normally". What the hell is normal? What's a normal person live like? No stress, no anxiety? I don't believe that. Where does being a regular Joe who is very emotional and suffers from stress with everyday life turn into bipolar Joe who needs to be on meds to deal with those emotions and stresses? Where's the line drawn, and who draws it? That's where I'm lost. I'm emotional, highs and lows; sometimes I'm so namelessly sad that I can only cry and go to bed early. Sometimes I'm bouncing off the walls with silliness and joy. Sometimes I'm just really stressed out and having a panic attack. Am I just a normal almost-30-something year old living and experiencing life (which is, let's face it, stressful and hectic and a wee bit crazy), or am I a person with strange chemicals affecting my brain that causes me to be a little more passionate and emotional and stressed than everyone else, and who needs to be on meds to correct that? How do I know? How does anyone know??

This is where I'm at - struggling to find some answers in the whole swirling mess of mental illness and the stresses of life. Perhaps others can offer some insights. In the interim, I hope that my own admissions of past pain and struggle can help some of you.

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