Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mental Illness: Misconceptions

This is no secret to my family and friends: I struggle with anxiety. I'm not talking about OCD behavior that makes me count my pencils one too many times, or feeling nervous because I'm worried about my husband getting home safely from work. When I say I have anxiety, I mean adrenaline-pumping, limbs shivering, heart-pounding, room-spinning, end-of-the-world anxiety. It's not glamorous, people.

Some days I pray just to survive the next 5 minutes. Some minutes I breath as deeply as I can to avoid the onslaught of a paralyzing attack. Some moments I sob because I feel lost, lonely or even terrified that I can't seem to control my own mind.

The ugly truth.

I have learned since I was 16, what I do and don't have control over. I can control my habits, but I cannot control my body. Since my brain is an organ in my body, I don't control it. I can assist it, and point it in the right direction. But at the end of the day, much like any other organ, if my brain wants to do what it wants to do...it just might go ahead and do it.

The worst thing that I cannot control, is others' opinions on mental illness. Why is it that so many believe that my anxiety is self-inflicted? Why are there people who believe that depression is a matter of crying too much and being unable to be grateful? Why is it that those who have never experienced mental illness are so quick to dismiss it as lack of self-control or dare I say it, because of poor choices or even sin?

And the question that bothers me the most...why is it that when I am frank and open about my physical body failing me, some look at me with this look in their eye like I just announced my death sentence?

The thing that has served me the most since I developed anxiety, was my ability to be open about my struggles and my loved ones that have been willing to be patient, compassionate and charitable. I have been blessed to have married a man that recognizes my limits and knows when to pull me in and remind me to breath. I have been blessed with family that understands I need to go at my own pace. I have been blessed with friends that are always readily available to lift me up when I feel the most down. And most importantly, I have been blessed with a Father in Heaven that is uniquely aware of my pain and provided a Savior to help alleviate my sorrows.

But because I know not everyone has one or all of those things I wanted to share some common misconceptions about mental illness, and how you can help serve those you know who have mental illness (or yourself). I'm obviously not a medical professional or psychiatrist, but I do know from personal experience -- take it for what it's worth. (This is a good page to read about misconceptions, too -- I must admit, it inspired me.)

1. Someone or something is to blame.
I still struggle with this myself, but I often try to find what pushed me over the edge. Was it a medication? Was it my life circumstances? Could I have done something differently? I think the answer is both yes and no, but regardless, there's no reason to play this game. No matter what, I still have what I have and trying to blame myself (or someone else for that matter) doesn't alleviate any pain or make my situation better.

What has helped is accepting myself for who I am and what I struggle with. I may always struggle with anxiety, but that's okay. Not everything in life is easy, and because I struggle with something, doesn't make me weak, broken or incomplete. It makes me a human being. It makes me a child of God who desperately needs the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. That's all.

2. You have control.
Sometimes the misconception is that the reason you have anxiety or depression is because you lack will power or a backbone. That's not true at all. Mental illness is simply an illness. It's not self-inflicted. We don't go around telling people to snap out of AIDS or cancer, do we? Why would we suggest that for someone who struggles with a mental illness? It's just downright silly.

Understanding that you don't have control (to a certain degree), is much like not playing the blame game. Accept yourself for who you are, illness and all, and then you can move on to discover what you actually can do to help yourself.

3. You don't have control.
I bet you're thinking "Waaaaaaah?!" right about now. Am I right? Well truth be told, you do have control, just not 100 percent of it and not the way outside forces want you to think you do.

I can't really tell myself to stop having an anxiety attack mid-attack, but if I take care of myself the best I can, it significantly drops the amount of anxiety/attacks in my life. When I am getting sufficient amount of sleep, exercising daily, eating a well-rounded diet, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding caffeine...I do pretty well! If I was taking medication, that would be a must as well! I also do my best to know and voice my limits, so I don't overboard myself with stress. Discover your limits and accept them. It's alright if you need more sleep than others or can't have your life packed full from minute-to-minute...do what works for you, and I promise, you will thank yourself for it later!

4. Those with mental illness hate their lives or are seeking attention.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. It really irritates me when I tell someone I have anxiety, and they immediately jump to the conclusion that I am a miserable, angry, bitter human being -- I'm not! I am grateful, joyful, and satisfied with life (for the most part, of course). I'm not always sulking or feeling sorry for myself. I'm not begging for compliments or attention from others. I just struggle a little more than most to keep my mental health in check.

That's not to say I don't have moments of despair and heartache because I do. Mental illness is exquisitely painful, but it'd be foolish to assume that I don't have hope in faith in myself OR that I don't enjoy my life overall.

5. It's just a phase, or can only happen to certain people, groups and ages.
I've had multiple people say things to me like, "You're a student, what do you have to stress over, you don't know anything about real life," OR "You don't have kids, what do you know about anxiety or pain?" OR "You're not old enough to know stress." That's naive. That's straight-up dumb. There's not one set of parameters that qualify an individual for mental illness. It's not like it's only white 28 and a 1/2 year old females living in Timbuktu are the only ones that can suffer from it. Reality check: anyone, any age can be affected by mental illness. Children feel it, teenagers feel it, adults feel it, and the elderly feel it. Unfortunately, mental illness does not discriminate.

So if you have a child, teenager, friend, family member or spouse, that you think is "just in a funk," don't assume (we all know what that makes us, right?). Instead, talk to them. Ask them how they are feeling. And when they give you an honest answer, don't judge them for it. Don't tell them they are being silly or it's just a phase. Understand that what they are going through is a very real thing. Then, after speaking with them, if you think they could benefit from professional help...suggest it or help them find it!

6. Those who are mentally ill are cra-cra...er, I mean, crazy.
Just because I have a mental illness, doesn't mean I'm a raving lunatic and need to be locked up in an institution because I might do...something. Sometimes individuals need extra help, and sometimes that means receiving medical attention or going to a facility, and there's nothing wrong with that. But those people are just people who have a mental illness. They are still people. They are still children of God. Treat them accordingly.

If you or someone you know struggle with mental illness...remember: you are not alone. Not at all. Be kind and patient to yourself. You need the extra love. And if you're not the one struggling, be a little more kind, patient, compassionate and charitable to the one who's struggling...they will love you for it, and you will learn something about yourself and others through the process.

And if you think you need extra help, be it professional or just a friend to listen to you, reach out! You are not weak because you ask for help, you are strong! All of us have room to improve, and there's nothing wrong with that.


I've blogged about anxiety before: part 1, part 2 and part 3.


Kathleen said...

This post, and your other anxiety posts, are wonderful! They are insightful and inspired, and I'm grateful for them! And you, for that matter!

Hannah said...

Thank you, thank you, Kathleen! I'm grateful for you, too!

Tasha said...

Oh, I'm so glad you wrote this. I feel like it's all the things I wanted to say in my blog post that I didn't feel like I could cram in. It's posts like these that will help create more understanding about mental illness.

Thanks! You are rad! I'm glad we're blog buddies :)

Sherms said...

Hannah, I didn't know you suffered from anxiety. I truly think that it's something a lot of people don't understand. They don't get how overwhelming it can be. Adam has suffered with it in the past, he seems to have a pretty good handle on it now. I'm so glad you have Nathaniel to help you through. Now, I'm not a scripture expert but didn't David slay Goliath in the end? xx

Jennifer said...

Hannah, a close family member was recently diagnosed with anxiety. It's a new thing we are dealing with. Thank you for posting! I am going to read the other posts you wrote about it.


Hannah said...

Tasha, funny you might say that because I almost broke this post up into three different posts (with a little more info in each) so I could really explore the topic thoroughly. But for whatever reason, it all ended up in one! I'm glad we're buddies, too -- love reading your blog. :)

Shemeen, I definitely think it's hard to understand if you've never experienced or watched someone you know very well have one. Maybe I should post more specifically about the biology and physical aspects of an anxiety attack, so those who don't understand, can get a better look into what it's like. Yes, he did! And that's the whole point :)

Jennifer, I wish you the best of luck in dealing with your family member's anxiety! It definitely takes a lot of faith and patience from everybody involved. I would suggest, your family member maintains a low level of stress by getting plenty of sleep, exercising daily, eating well and avoiding caffeine. It definitely makes a huge difference for me!

Amy said...

Hannah, thanks for this great post. I struggled with anxiety for a time during my first year of college. I remember having panic attacks while I was just walking across campus and feeling like I was going to die before I even reached my class, and laying in bed because I felt like the world was too much for me to face. It's gotten a lot better for me, and I'm a lot more accepting of it, but at first, I felt like I couldn't tell anyone. I wish I had reached out more back then when I was really hurtin'! I hope this post helps someone :)

Hannah said...

Amy, thanks for sharing. :) I hope it's helped someone, too!

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