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What Does Mental Illness Look Like?

Mental illness looks very different not only from person to person, but day to day for each person. When you see me out and about, you most likely see me on my healthiest days, when I’m not overwrought by anxiety or depression. But I can’t always hide at home when mental illness strikes me, and then you’ll see my Brave Face, which is a mask that looks much like my Good Day face. So you may not know how much pain I’m hiding, or how much of a struggle it is to make sure the smile reaches my eyes.

Unless you read my blog, of course. I’ve been trying to be more authentic with even the ugly parts of my life. It can be therapeutic for me, and the grateful and supportive comments I get from others show me that I can help other people by sharing my own story. Let people know they aren’t alone.

So for the American Psychological Association’s Mental Health Blog Day, I want to show you what a bad day looks like for me. When both anxiety and depression rear their ugly heads at me.

I'm Blogging for Mental Health.It might start out just fine. I get up, have some breakfast, check my email, mess around on Facebook for a little while, and try to get some work done.

Only, for the life of me, I can’t focus. I’m distracted. I stare at the blank WordPress page with only the title field filled in, or I open up the Word document one of my writers finished up so I can edit it for a client… but I keep reading the same line over and over again. I get a little bit done, but it’s clear to me that nothing is going to get finished right this moment. I go back to Facebook, or I check out Reddit, or I try to do some yoga on the Wii Fit, or I start up World of Warcraft and promise myself it’s only for an hour so I can shake this…whatever it is. It could be “brain fog,” a symptom of my CFS, but it might not be.

I alt-tab back to my work. I stare at it for a while longer, maybe hitting a few keys now and then. I’m still not feeling it. Now I’m getting irritable, mad at myself for not being productive. If it’s a post for my blog, I’ll probably alt-tab away again and try to blow off more steam on WoW or /r/depression. If it’s client work, I’ll try to power through, but I’m always worried that I miss things that should have been rewritten when I’m not at the top of my game. (A client has never actually come back and told me something was crap after one of these episodes, so these fears are a combination of my anxiety-related perfectionism and my depression telling me I’m worthless.)

Let’s assume I have no more client work now, but I still have that mostly empty blog post staring me in the face. I do another quick set of yoga exercises (4-12 minutes) and play some more WoW. I can’t even read reddit or Facebook at this point because I’m so agitated with my inability to produce words on a page, so I mash buttons playing my game. Or I watch All My Children on Hulu.

All of a sudden, the door opens, and TJ runs in the door. Somehow, it’s 3:00 already, and he’s home from school. I’ve wasted the afternoon, and I still don’t find myself any closer to being able to write anything.

I ask TJ how his day was, and I get his afterschool snack for him. I make a halfhearted suggestion that he get his homework done and out of the way now, but I don’t have the mental energy to protest when he declares he wants to relax and watch PBS Kids first. Curious George’s voice starts driving me crazy less than five minutes into the show, and I finally give up on finishing the blog post today. I’ll work on it tomorrow, I promise myself. (This is how I end up with only one blog post per week sometimes. “Tomorrow” brings another promise of “tomorrow…”)

So I go back to playing WoW while TJ watches TV. Maybe he comes over and asks to sit on my lap for a few minutes while I do a pet battle. I have to ask him to get down when it starts to hurt me. He’s getting so big, and my muscles are just really weak. I feel guilty about this, especially when he makes a comment about how maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow.

Sometime around 4:00, I mention his homework again, and he says he’ll do it after Arthur. This may or may not happen, and I get irritated if I have to keep nagging him about homework. DW’s voice on the TV makes me want to stab things. (Just to be clear, I’ve never stabbed anything, except for my dinner. With a fork.)

By the time Tom comes home from work after 5:00, I’m on edge, and it feels like I’m just waiting for that one last straw. He asks me what I want for dinner. I tell him I don’t know. He gets frustrated because he doesn’t mind cooking as long as he doesn’t have to stress over what to cook, but he can also tell by the look on my face that I’m not doing well, so there’s tension in the air. But dinner gets made, and I thank him and compliment his cooking. I try not to snap at TJ when he gives us a hard time about eating.

6:30 rolls around, and TJ watches Pokemon. Maybe it’s the incessant wailing of high-pitched voices, or maybe it’s something I’m reading online that sets me off, but I can’t take it anymore. My chest is tight; my heart is racing. Any second now, I’m going to burst into tears or break out into a full-fledged panic attack…or both. I get up from my chair unceremoniously and head upstairs.  I don’t grab my phone, which is how Tom knows I’m not going up to use the bathroom. (I like to play Words With Friends while I’m up there, okay?)

I go into my room, close the door behind me, climb into bed, pull the covers over my head, and cry my eyes out into the pillow. I feel like I’ll never be okay again, even though I know in my head that I’ll likely feel better in an hour. After 5-10 minutes, Tom comes upstairs and sits on the bed next to me. If my head is still under the covers, he’ll ask me to come out. It might take a little while, but I do.

He asks me what’s wrong. I tell him that nothing’s actually wrong. And that’s the worst part. Nothing horrible happened to cause this. The physical symptoms came on and manifested the psychological ones – slowly, insidiously throughout the day. I’m probably still sobbing, so Tom hands me a drink and one of my anti-anxiety pills so I can nix the physical symptoms and pull myself together mentally. I don’t like taking those pills unless I have to. Numbness feels better than pain, but it’s not a comfortable feeling either. And I wouldn’t have taken one before Tom came home from work to stave this off in case something came up and I needed to drive somewhere. I’d never drive under the influence of these pills; it would be as bad as drinking and driving.

Calmness comes. I stop crying, but it takes a while to completely dry my tears, which occasionally leak out despite my assurance that I feel better now. My eyes are red and sore for the rest of the night, and exhaustion sinks into my bones – both mental and physical. TJ comes upstairs and asks why we’re up here, because he misses us and wants us back downstairs with him. I tell him that Mommy wasn’t feeling well, and Daddy came up to check on me, but I’m feeling better now, so I’ll be down in a minute. TJ tromps back downstairs because he doesn’t want to miss anymore of Pokemon, and Tom gives me a big teddy bear hug before we go back downstairs.

I apologize to Tom several times throughout the evening after TJ goes to bed. He asks, “What for?” I respond, “For you always having to take care of me like this when I fall apart.” And, like always, he says, “That’s what I’m here for.” Despite his reassurances, I still worry that, one day, he won’t want to deal with this anymore, that he’ll resent me for being so needy. He says it will never happen, but what if it does? I’m a terrible burden. He does so much for me, and I feel like I don’t give nearly as much as I take. He says he loves me, and I know he does, but what if that’s not enough after years and years of always taking care of me and I’m rarely in the position to reciprocate?

That’s probably the depression talking, and it does get worse from there. The doubts, the fears, the self-loathing. I don’t understand why he loves me. I don’t know what I would ever do without him. I know it would be bad.

We watch a movie or something on TV to take my mind off things, but all of the thoughts circle back in my head at bedtime. Despite taking several medications to help me sleep, it still takes two hours or more until sleep finally comes.

And the next day…it starts all over again. I won’t know if it’s a good day or a bad day until I’m part way through it, and the cards are stacked against me due to lack of sleep. Welcome to my life.

As if to prove part of my point, it took me over 12 hours to finish writing this post the day before publishing. It’s always harder when there’s a tough subject to write about. There was much Reddit, yoga, Facebook, WoW, TV, and even a jigsaw puzzle interspersed with writing. If you got this far, thank you for reading. My good days do outnumber my bad, but it doesn’t always seem that way to me.

Christina Gleason (859 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I’m a relatively high-functioning Aspie who also lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. I am not ashamed to admit that I am in the care of a psychiatrist, who assures me that people in therapy are often better adjusted than “normal” people who are not, because at least we know what our issues are and are working on them. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including World of Warcraft and Plants vs Zombies 2. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead. I have started writing no fewer than five novels, and I hope to finish one of them...eventually.

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Lex May 15, 2013, 7:44 pm

    Wow. I TOTALLY get this! In my case it’s Bipolar 2, or the artist formerly known as manic depression, along with some social anxiety. It can make things so. damn. hard. In fact, as I type this up my anxiety is all up in my s*** because omg this counts as a form of interaction and what if I type the wrong thing?

    Anyway, I’m having a surprisingly hard time finding the right words at the moment, but thank you for stepping up and writing about this stuff. There’s still this massive stigma surrounding less-than-stellar mental health; people need to understand how this stuff REALLY works.

    So, keep on keeping on. Cheers~ :)

  • Stefanie May 15, 2013, 11:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing! It hurts and helps all at the same time to hear about what you are going through …all I can say is that I send love and support (along with a huge hug) to you and your family

  • Michael May 17, 2013, 8:02 pm

    Thanks for this blog post it was very insightful. My girlfriend also has depression and told me I should read this, as it mirrors her symptoms almost exactly. I really appreciate you writing out all of this, thank you.

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