Friday, March 03, 2017
You Don't Look Sick
My illness is called General Anxiety Disorder. It's a mental illness. And that totally complicates things because saying "mental illness" to someone can be a deal breaker. There's still a lot of stigma out there surrounding mental illness. Somehow it's different than saying, MS or lupus or Crohn's. All of those diseases could have been the subject of the paragraph above. And having those sorts of chronic illnesses elicits a different sort of response. But once you say "mental illness" it's like there is a shift in the room, and the person you are speaking to leans back, just a bit. At least that's how it feels to me when I say it out loud. I am suddenly afraid that my credibility with that person just went out the window. And the truth is, at least a little bit of it probably did.
Anxiety can be a bitch because I don't look sick. I might not be showing symptoms that other people can see or recognize (at least the people who don't know me well), because I have mastered the art of Assuming The Role until I can get out of the room and into my car or back to my safe space. But the thing is, some days I honestly feel velcro-ed to the sofa, finding it difficult to peel myself off for any reason. It takes a monumental effort to just breathe in and breathe out. Then again, on some days I think I might explode from the feeling inside me - the feeling like a fluttering bird is stuck in my chest, banging to get out, but with no door to open to free it. It's hard to concentrate when something like that is happening. Some days I can't get my brain to stop cycling through the list, the monstrous overwhelming list, of things I have yet to do that may never get done, that seems impossible to triage because everything damn thing is so important. And incredibly, I still have to be the parent on those days. Those are the days that I pray I don't do too much damage to my kids. It's hard to explain to little ones that I am just not feeling like myself and I am so sorry for the yelling (or forgetting, or ignoring). The intersection of self care and child care is not easy to navigate.
I mention this because ever since November and the presidential election I have been feeling that anxiety creeping back into my chest. It doesn't always happen all at once, but when it does start to show up, I can recognize the feelings. And I have been monitoring myself for the past 4 months noticing the warning signs. It's definitely the political climate and the chaos that has ensued that has brought this back on. The need to become involved, and actually being involved, with the democratic process has helped stave it off. But it's definitely back now. And I would stake good money that I am not alone. The sort of upheaval that this election and it's subsequent government has caused is exactly the sort of trigger that most of us need to start the ball rolling on anxiety and depression. It's a hard time to navigate mental illness.
I had a recent conversation with a friend who couldn't quite understand why the election hit me so hard. I know it's not the same for all of us. Some of my friends are fine with the outcome. And some are just as scared as I am. For me, I see all the protections I counted on for my community and my kids eroding. I see a government hell-bent on becoming a Theocracy or Fascist State, neither of which make me feel safe. Being me is a whole lot riskier than it used to be. I live in a state without a hate crimes law, so the rolling back of transgender rights has real and scary consequences here. And I live in a state where our former governor (now the Vice President) made it clear that I am a second class citizen. He signed a law that made it ok to discriminate against me. So when I say that I don't feel safe, please recognize that as a real and honest fear, based in the reality of where I live. Where will it stop? We have already given up so many of our human rights. I have no reason to believe that it won't go further. Well meaning people have encouraged the climate we are now in, and furthered it, taking away my protections. Why would I trust it to be any different 6 months, or 4 years from now? Imagine for a moment what that might do to a person who is already at risk for anxiety. And now imagine that my prescription for medications that help me cope is at risk too, because the ACA is on the chopping block. It feels very unsafe right now.
So be kind out there, walking around this world. Nearly one in five Americans suffers from some sort of mental illness every year. That's a lot of struggling people. There are the mines you already know about (politics and religion) and the ones you don't (anxiety and depression). And maybe you will find it in your heart not to lean back when someone is brave enough to share their mental health struggles with you. Maybe, just maybe you can lean in, just a little. It would mean so much.