| 4 min read | by Doug Marrin |

Note: These are real stories from our neighbors in their own words, personal accounts of struggle that sometimes end in triumph, sometimes in coping, or sometimes simply falling apart.

It’s the human experience we all share and in giving it voice we are encouraged to know that we are not alone, we are not weak and failing. Life is hard and we’re doing our best, like everyone, learning as we go.

“Grace”

“I didn’t even really know I was having struggles with mental health. I was fine, I thought. But looking back, I was more just getting by rather than actually living or feeling particularly good.”

Mental illness is often described as the “invisible illness” because it is not readily apparent to a person or the people around them. It can be hidden away behind a façade of normalcy. But as we learn with Grace’s story, just because a person doesn’t look like they’re struggling, doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. And like any illness, physical or mental, if left unchecked it can gain the upper hand.

“I have struggled in some ways with anxiety for most of my life, but it was never to the point that it actively interfered with my functioning.”

“I was kind of at a crossroads where my oldest child had left for college. A lot of my identity has been in being ‘mom’, and I’ve been very happy with that. But now I was just kind of feeling a little bit lost, not really sure what the next chapter was going to be. I tried going back to work but was ambushed by a lot of anxiety. Basically, it felt like the carpet was taken out from under me. It was shocking.”

Depression misunderstood

It is a common misconception that depression adds the feeling of extreme sadness to someone’s life. The reality is that depression masks or takes away entirely other feelings like joy and excitement – that zest for life. It’s not that a person is sad, there’s simply a lack of enthusiasm. Depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand.

With the role of ‘mom’  now changed, Grace looked to fill the void with a return to the workforce. She had been out of the labor market for years raising her children and a return was very intimidation to the point of palpable anxiety.

“It was very intimidating to be in my mid-40s and looking for a job. I was competing against people half my age. I was outdated in my line of work. One interviewer actually told me, ‘We’re looking for someone who is superior or excellent. You’re average.’ That hit hard and destroyed what little confidence I was trying to gain.”

Emotions experienced physically

“Then I landed a job. I’ve never had anything like a panic attack before, but I was crying in the middle of the night thinking, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t go back.’ I’ve never felt like that before. I called the place the next day apologizing, but telling them I wouldn’t be taking the job. That happened with two different jobs.”

It’s surprising to many people that emotions are experienced physically. They are not hidden, invisible or just troubling thoughts that can be suppressed for the sake of public decorum. With anxiety the pulse quickens, adrenaline flows, and the body is prepared for battle, to run like the wind, or freeze. Anxiety as a disorder is the brain confusing normal everyday situations for stressful and threatening ones that create this physical response.

“I would shake. My heart would race. I would get sweaty and my voice would stammer. I would dissociate where it would feel like I wasn’t really there and it was someone else here.”

“I knew I was having issues with regard to work, but what I didn’t realize until later when I got help was that was affecting me. Even a low level depression was affecting my daily life. I would sleep a lot. If I had an appointment or something to do that day, I could make sure I got up and showered. But that might be the only thing I did that day.”

Surviving the sterotype

If a person is regularly lying in bed, napping, in the afternoon when there are things that need to be done, it isn’t necessarily because the depression and anxiety has necessarily made them really sad. It’s not even that they can’t pull it together when they have to. As in Grace’s case it’s that the depression has taken away a lot of the motivation for daily life. There just isn’t a point.

“I knew somewhere inside of myself that I could be better, but I was afraid that maybe I was beyond help. What really scared me was the idea of what if there is something defective about me? You know how some people are resistant to antibiotics? What if I’m resistant to help? What if I’m always going to be like this?”

Stereotypes portraying people with mental illness as being unpredictable, dangerous, or generally incompetent have created a stigma around seeking help. Yet, if a person has a physical condition that needs attention, we would encourage them to seek help. There is no judgement or shame in a person admitting they are physically sick or broken and need help. There are severe physical conditions as well as mild. Both need to be attended. The same should be true for mental illness.

“I think there are a lot of people missing the boat when they think of mental illness. It means you’re crazy, right? So there’s this stigma you have to get past before you can seek and then receive help.”

“I saw an ad for a pilot program, Mood Lifters, and signed up. The program has you take a questionnaire and then assigns a score. I entered the program at clinical levels for both anxiety and depression. I didn’t really care where I scored. I just knew how I was feeling and to me that was more important. And as I was going through the program, I realized how helpless I had felt in a lot of ways.”

A unique experience

Depression is a different experience for everyone who experiences it. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ condition. Because it is unique to each person, it is often difficult to recognize and just as difficult to articulate, even harder to isolate and address.

“What I love about what I learned in move lifters is that I was given strategies on how to be proactive in the face of either really uncomfortable emotions or really negative thoughts. For me, that was huge. I had never learned to question the thoughts or feelings that I was having. I just kind of accepted it all as normal life. Like I said, I wasn’t so miserable. But, I was unhappy enough that when I started feeling better, it was like ‘Wow. It’s a shame that I was living like that for so long.’”

At the end of the program, Grace completed another questionnaire and her scores showed a marked reduction in her anxiety and depression. It was an exhilarating moment.

“The main part of my story, that I really want to get across, is the fact that I didn’t know how badly I was feeling until I started feeling better. That was big for me because I felt like I was doing okay. If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have said I was fine and I wouldn’t have felt like I was being dishonest.”

“I used to think that I’m at the mercy of my thoughts and feelings. Now I realize I can do something to help myself. I have tools in my back pocket. I still face the same old bad feelings, but they don’t last as long and they don’t go as deep. It’s brought me a confidence in a way. It’s just kind of like I can breathe and I’m not having to look over my shoulder.”

Note: I have not used “Graces” real name. More information on Mood Lifters can be found on their website at https://www.mood-lifters.com/