This is all new to me: anxiety, depression, bipolarity. Mental illness -- although I understand now that it has been clinging to me like a demanding toddler on its exhausted mother's leg -- this shit is new to me. When it was diagnosed; when I heard for the first time that I had a mental illness; when I suddenly went from a reality which had mislead me to believe that misery was part of human nature, not a disorder that teased me with tantalizing methods of crushing me into bits like a dilapidated condemned building -- after two years, when I think I've finally gotten it, I actually still don't know the full extent.
As a child, I remember one night, lying in my bed, listening to my parents fighting in the living room. Actually it was more of a loud disagreement, but since my parents rarely raised their voices towards one another, my little body started shivering. My teeth clacked and my limbs trembled, and when I went to my mother, crying and shaking, I know now she had no idea the extent of her daughter's anxious nature. My episode did, however, warrant a visit to the doctor who simply said that, "she was probably just tired." Then the doctor gave me a reassuring pat on the head, and said, "Mommies and daddies fight sometimes."
I mean no disrespect towards this person. After all, I was six or seven years old -- this was 40 years ago -- and there wasn't much more to be explained to my mother back then. Panic attacks were the stuff of old movies, where the damsel in distress draped her arm dramatically across her forehead, and swooned onto the nearest armchair. And panic attacks did not happen to six-year-olds.
But I've lived with cues and clues that my mental reality is not that of everyone else's for so long that I'm no longer certain what warrants a doctor's visit. I've explained to psychologists and psychiatrists the fear I have of that bubble of euphoria in the pit of my stomach that worms its way throughout my body and screams in my ear; the rider next to me gripping my arm as the lighting fast roller coaster shoots down the rail. I'm scared of this bubble. This bubble seeps into every aspect of my life, and for a brief period, I think this is normal. Because for my entire life it has been normal. It was normal to stay up all night reorganizing shoes in the front hall closet. It was normal to spend money, rack up credit cards, build things, destroy things. Abnormality was normal.
I'm scared now though because the bubble does eventually bust apart leaving a disgusting, toxic residue on those standing nearby, and now I know that with proper medical care, it can be prevented. This I get. So when I start to feel the familiar 'rising of the bubble', I tell the people who should know. I should tell the people, right? But I take medication now, and self-control -- something that I lacked, partly because of my personality and partly because of my bipolarity -- is something I must learn, I'm told by the people. Fair enough. The mental health care system has far more intricate issues to deal with than my bubble, and so I hesitate to tell. Because I should just control myself, right?
But what about other feelings that aren't the 'rising bubble?' Telling the people about the 'rising bubble' is bad enough. Being told by someone else that, "No, you're fine, this isn't mania, you need to learn some self-control," is one thing. But what about that familiar childhood sensation of dread; the impending doom that grips my throat and clenches my gut with iron claws; this sensation that appears for no particular reason and persists until it decides when to leave? It's been hanging around for 40 years. Does this warrant a mention?
Feelings and thoughts have been with me for awhile, and sharing them is important for treating my mental illness. But when a health system resorts to old age adages rather than reviewing symptoms, or doesn't even believe you're experiencing said symptoms because, "You're probably just PMSing," is it better to live with the shaking, jittery, nauseating panic? Because what if I am just PMSing...all the goddamned time?
So during this Mental Health Awareness Week, I'm committing to learning and accepting without shame that some of my behaviours are my own and others are symptoms of an invisible illness. Obviously my flaws are my own but some are not. I need to rebuild and recharge a mindset that will take accountability for mistakes while forgiving them. I understand that I won't always recognize the symptoms of my mental illness. I may need medications for a few years or for many.
But in an age where mental illness is epidemic, people who find the strength to inquire about their health; to ask embarrassing questions; to share private stories, should be provided with more information than the signs and symptoms of menopause or being told that they're "just tired." This is Mental Health Awareness Week. Let's finally talk about what we really feel so that the health care system is forced to as well. Maybe what it has to say is not what we even want to hear, and we have the right to know that too.
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