Since I was around 10, I dreaded waking up my mom or dad from a nap. My mom wasn’t too bad – she never was sleeping but rather just “resting her eyes” on the sofa. My dad though was in deep rem sleep. I absolutely hated having to go and wake him up. Every single time I went up the stairs I had the same worry – what if this is the time he doesn’t wake up?
I had a similar feeling at school. Whenever I got a note to go down to the office or when a teacher asked to talk to me after class – I thought this was it. Something bad had happened.
Out of context, this sounds like I was a neurotic young person. With context, knowing that both of my parents were very sadly terminally ill with cancer and heart disease – I think it makes more sense. Things only got worse when I moved to University and their conditions became more and more serious and uncertain. The dread became worse and worse – but I never gave it a name. After my parents passed away within six months of each other – I still had that awful feeling frequently.
The year after they died, I was in a small car accident. Just a fender bender. However, I knew it was because my mind was somewhere that wasn’t driving. It happened more than once – when I almost was in a much more serious accident I decided it was time to seek help. I went to the doctor and the neurologist – they told me it was probably just that I was “overwhelmed” and having headaches.
It was right around those time that I got my first “grown up” job as a Latin teacher. I was very young, very unexperienced and I was in fact overwhelmed. I didn’t question what the doctor had said. Instead, I chalked it up to first year jitters. Then the next year, I assumed it was because of the new courses I was teaching. Same for the next year. Then I moved to Colombia which was a place that was designed to stress me out. Then I went back to grad school. My point is – there was always an excuse for feeling this way. By my final semester in grad school, I was fed up of having loss of concentration, trouble breathing, stomach aches and the like. So I went to my doctor.
It took me 27 years to finally give this feeling a name. Anxiety. Very serious anxiety. It was hard to finally admit that I would be willing to try a prescription to help treat my anxiety. It’s been a year and a half and my life has almost completely changed.
That feeling in my chest, the one that made it hard to breathe – haven’t had it in a year. The intense month-long headaches – they are gone too. And that general uneasy feeling which is hard to put a finger on – for the most part, it’s gone too. Sure, in certain circumstances, I’m still anxious – especially dealing with the Spanish government and during turbulence on airplanes. When a friend passed away in April, I had a full blown panic attack – something that has never happened before. However, after taking my medicine, I was able to control my breathing and calm down physically so I could start to deal with my emotions.
Why should I be ashamed that I turned to medicine to treat this disease? My mother wasn’t ashamed of going to the doctor for cancer. My father never felt nervous about sharing with his doctor when he had a heath change. I shouldn’t feel that shame!
Why do we stigmatize mental health in the US? Why should we? I see articles on social media (granted from people who don’t work in healthcare) talking about how antidepressants don’t do anything. I have some anecdotal evidence to the contrary. We certainly don’t value its treatment in the same way we value other health problems. We don’t even properly cover veteran’s mental health. It actually makes me really upset.
Obviously most people treat health as a private issue. And I do as well, which is why I don’t advertise that I take medicine to help to everyone I know (until now). But I feel so much better. Sure – I couple this with tons of other activities and lifestyle choices to reduce anxiety. But I’ve been doing these stress-relieving activities for years. There are pictures of me from pre-school doing puzzles. I’ve enjoyed writing since 1st grade. I’ve been planning for 5 years. But what was the turning point? Starting a prescription.
Mental health may be a private issue but we shouldn’t feel ashamed to seek treatment for it. I think if every single child had mental health check ups in the same way that they have physicals – maybe we could prevent things like teen suicide or address warning signs for young adults about to commit gun violence. At my physicals – my doctor asks me if I have friends. That’s some bullshit. It’s not enough. I don’t blame him. It’s just what the state requires.
I think one of the biggest ways to destigmatize mental health is to talk about it. Especially if we can talk about it in the same way we talk about the common cold or a broken arm. I think about all those years that I felt absolutely terrible – so anxious I couldn’t sleep or the attacks I had. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself there’s no shame in seeking medical and therapeutic help. I think of how many years of my life I could have back had I just not fed into the stigma.
Note: I am also not a health expert. The above comments are my own opinion and any heath change you experience should be communicated with your doctor – not consulted with online resources like this. Also WebMD – don’t do it. This piece is just serving to talk about my own experience and create an open discussion about how stigmatized mental health is.