As I am all prepared to give a talk about mental illness tomorrow, here is a guest post by Ellen Lundgren. Ellen (pictured at right) will be at Skepticon 4 all weekend and has said she’s willing to discuss her story with anybody interested.
I wrote an earlier post with some details on dealing with my anxiety. What I left out was this problem has a much deeper background, and I’ve had a new and recent solution.
To cover a lot of history in a little time… I was always an extremely shy kid, terrified to talk to strangers or authority. It continued through grade school turning me inward and protecting myself with a hard shell of masked emotions. Through middle school and early high school, this made me extremely depressed, lonely, and internally masochistic. My life was the worst thing to me. I felt isolated, I felt like I had no friends, when in reality, I was probably pushing them away because I didn’t know how to handle it. I felt like my parents were purposely making it worse for me. Home life was spent on the computer with online friends, or in hiding in my bedroom. School was spent blending in and getting by.
In the middle of high school, I decided that this depression sucked and that I didn’t want to be like this anymore. Over the next few months to a year, I began to teach myself to be happy. I started with the little things. I would literally giggle just playing with some string. I would make myself smile when I stepped on the crunchy leaves in the fall. I would do what ever little things could give me momentary pleasure, and very slowly, I began to step out of the dark pit of wallowing depression.
I began to use the incentive of going to college as my escape. That thing to look forward to where I would finally be on my own, a chance to reinvent myself. I no longer cared that I wasn’t popular, I didn’t have many close friends. People didn’t care for me, I didn’t care for them. But I was going to get to college and show them all that I was awesome. I was 90% out of my depression and I had done it all on my own. At the same time, I’m extremely proud of that, and also really sad that it had to be that way. Sad that I had no one to help me through it. No one had seemed to notice. But I was now ten times stronger than I was before. I knew what depression felt like and I could tell when I began slipping down that dark hole again, and I would use my silly little tricks to slowly pull myself up again. Sometimes the smiles were forced, but over time, it helped.
Finally, in college, I felt a huge relief being on my own. I was excited to be able to relax into myself and to try out a new me. I was still quiet and shy at first, but freshman year I had a great bunch of new friends because we were all starting over again.
Now, my depression was gone however, stress and anxiety began to creep in and replace it. In my new life of actually being social, and having a full load of classes, I think I began to fray. I began to completely over think situations with people and my thoughts would go into warp speed worrying if I was acting right, what people thought of me, if I was too weird, if what I wanted to say was going to sound stupid. It was too much. I started to spend more time alone in my room and I would go whole weekends without even getting out of pajamas. At this point, I finally began to contemplate making a counseling appointment (free at my university) but I would always feel either ashamed or terrified and burst into tears thinking about it, and I could never do it.
About a year ago now, it built to the point that my anxiety snapped. I began to have panic attacks. It was usually a social expectation that triggered it, someone would ask me to do something completely voluntary that wasn’t a big deal but that I didn’t particularly want to do. It would have been the easiest thing to just say no, but instead I would feel bound to accept or risk being impolite or being completely rejected. It was an irrational fear, but my mind was convinced that it would happen and I would hyperventilate to the point that it hurt, my heart would race and I would get dizzy enough that I had to sit down, my eyes would tear up and my brain would not stop. Finally, I called a close friend who rushed over to calm me down, and the next day they went with me as moral support as I made my first appointment at the Counseling Office.
After that, just having that appointment made even though it was three weeks out made me feel so much better. Knowing that I had finally sought out some help and admitted that I had some issues to deal with, really began the healing process. Over the next eight months I went to regular counseling sessions for severe Social and Generalized Anxiety and Mild/Moderate Depression and began to feel quite a bit better. Even though some sessions were tough, I was rationalizing my fears, and I felt that I was on the road to recovery.
My counselor asked early on if I was interested in anxiety medications to get a handle on it, but I wanted to avoid medication to see if I could get over it with counseling first. I was willing to work on it and willing to make the change to get better. But a few months down the line, he asked again and said that he felt there was still some resistance from me and that he recommended medication again. Over this last summer, my counseling was interrupted so I had the time to really think about it. After meeting and talking with JT about these issues for a while, he convinced me to seriously consider some anxiety medication.
At the end of August, my doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant SSRI medication that also deals with anxiety. I’m glad to report that over the last few months, I’ve been more comfortable and more myself than I have in… forever. It sounds like an overstatement, but really… I’m not different, I’m more “me.” I’m no longer trapped in my head worrying and I’m much more sociable with my friends and with new people. I still need my downtime (this isn’t magic extroversion medicine) and I still get sad, but I am ten times more confident in my relationships and way less stressed leaving my apartment each day. And it’s how I’m able to share this story publicly today.
My hope is that by sharing my nearly decade long struggle, that it will help someone else with a similar story have the courage to admit it. If anyone reading this has experienced long term depression, apathy, anxiety or is constantly over-stressed and worried about life, I suggest going to a counselor, doctor, trusted friend and talking honestly about this for once. Even opening up and telling more people that I had anxiety helped me feel better, like I wasn’t hiding. I spent a lot of time trying to hide from my issues with anxiety and depression, but being in denial didn’t help me feel better. Tell someone, look into counseling. If it’s too scary, have a friend go with you. But don’t stay where you are, because life can be so much better and much more fun than it seems now.
If you want a friendly stranger to talk to, I’m available on facebook at Ellen Lundgren, or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. JT is a great person to talk to about this as well since he helped me.