Origins

Nov. 19th, 2010 10:28 pm
miss_invisible: (gws: coffee sulk)
[personal profile] miss_invisible
I often find myself wondering when, exactly, everything started. Have I always been dealing with mental illness? Have I always been, to greater or lesser degrees, disabled? At times the wondering borders on obsession, the inability of my anxious mind to let things go making me turn the thought over and over in my mind. Maybe part of me thinks that if I knew when it started, if I could find some moment and say, “This is when it began,” then maybe I could master it. I could understand it, I could control it, I could fix it. Ridiculous, obviously, but a lot what goes on in my head has fairly little to do with logic.

My migraines began when I was five years old. My migraines are, almost unfailingly, triggered by high stress levels and the anxiety with which they are inextricably intertwined. I still have a dim memory of mother laying me down in the middle of my parents’ big queen bed and sitting with me in the darkened room while the pain split through my skull. I didn’t understand what was happening to me; she gave me Motrin and later had my pediatrician confirm what she already knew: it was my first migraine. My mother has had them for years; I had my first at age five, despite being a happy, bright, active child enjoying kindergarten. Was that when it started? Was that the first symptom?

Perhaps it was in the sixth grade. I was still smart, still active, always busy. A little more serious, and my time stretched thinner, but I can’t recall feeling actually sick, actually unwell. But that year I stopped breathing. Doctors thought it was asthma at first, but after failed treatment and a referral to a pulmonologist it finally got worked out: they were vocal cord spasms. My throat would literally close off when I was under stress; when it happened, I simply couldn’t get air. Sometimes it happened to me almost daily. It’s a condition that has eased over time– it rarely happens now. It was probably easier than what followed.

Somewhere in the realm of eighth grade to high school is when the first real manifestations of depression and anxiety began, if I had to put a timeframe on it. My high school years were an overachieving hell of accelerated, honors, and advanced placement courses, of piled of homework and any number of extracurricular activities, juggled with college applications as an upperclassman. I was a straight-A student with almost no time to myself; naturally it took a toll. Migraines became regular. Emotional breakdowns were at least a monthly occurrence that would leave me crying on the floor of my bedroom, overwhelmed and overworked and stressed and profoundly unhappy with nearly everything in my life, yet convinced at some bone-deep level that I had no choice but to push through and succeed. It didn’t really occur to me that I should feel differently– hysterics over school were a regular occurrence around me. One of my closest friends would completely melt down with stress on a weekly basis, like clockwork. You just dealt with it; it wasn’t until later, looking back, that I realized how toxic the experience had been.

Then college. College was no reprieve. My freshman year I was taking seven courses instead of the standard four. Three of them had additional lab requirements. I was an honors student. I was, at the time, majoring in a hard science. If my past didn’t count as the breaking point, then surely my freshman year did. Most nights I was lucky to get five hours of sleep; three was not unusual. I had no social life, constantly either working or too worn down for activity. I swung between total insomnia (even when I had time to sleep) and shutting down for twelve hours or more. I had constant headaches. I scratched my skin raw with my nails, pulled my cuticles out in fits of dermatillomania until my hands bled. Sometimes I could barely choke food down; other times I gorged. I had dizzy spells, faints. My moods swung between numb detachment and abject despair. I thought about suicide, but it would have taken so much effort– instead a part of me wished to get sick, to get cancer or something that would put a timestamp on my life, so I could throw my responsibilities away and just be done. It’s a terrible thing to wish, but it didn’t happen. Instead I bulled through a year that nearly killed me. I still had perfect grades– even when you don’t feel up to it, you do what you have to. That was what I thought then. I went to the campus counseling center for a while, but it did very little good.

Changing majors helped. In my sophomore year I switched to liberal arts, a double major in French and Comparative literature. I took fewer classes, I had no labs. I was batter. I told myself that I was better now, and if I still broke down over every stressor, if I still got headaches and migraines all the time, if I still felt upset for no reason at all now and then, well. Hadn’t I always?

My senior year was when everything (save, again, my grades) really fell apart. It shouldn’t have. I had great friends who always supported me, a boyfriend who I was madly in love with who wasn’t afraid of my bad days and was there for me high or low and gave me space when I asked. I was almost done with college, poised to graduate suma cum laude, honors program, Phi Beta Kappa with both of my majors. Objectively speaking, my life was falling into place the way I had worked for from the start. Yet I was still moody, still had fits of abject misery, or freak-outs over tiny obstacles that shouldn’t have fazed me. I developed focal seizures in place of my migraines, but still inextricably tied to stress. I had to go to the hospital for a panic attack, not knowing what it was. By the end of the year, my insomnia had reached almost unbearable levels– often I wouldn’t get to sleep until between 5 and 7 AM. I would get periods of nausea whenever I tried to eat– though admittedly part of that can probably be attributed to the quality of college cafeteria food. Once I got home after graduation, I finally, finally saw a psychiatrist and a therapist. Depending when it all "really started," I had been coping with my mental illness for somewhere between four and seventeen years without any treatment or help.

Why? Why did I put myself through that? Because I felt unable to ask for help. Needing help is a weakness. I have to be independent. I have to cope. People expect things from me. People rely on me. These and a thousand variations on the theme have all gone through my mind. I still haven’t gotten free of thinking that way, even though I see the fallacy of it now. I am sick, I am mentally ill, I am disabled. I have clinical depression. I have anxiety. I suffer from seizures and migraines and panic attacks. I am not well. This is not my fault, and there is only so much of it that I can ever even hope to control. I understand these things, but I don’t yet believe them.

Date: 2010-12-06 06:32 pm (UTC)
landlocked: a single tree, maybe 40 feet from the camera.  lighting similar to that after rain, before sunset. color is filtered. (Default)
From: [personal profile] landlocked
(found your post through disabledfeminists.com)

Not sure what kind of feedback you want, but it seems like we've had similar experiences. Years of untreated mental illness and feeling like I had to get by alone. The other trouble I had was endless rationalization - e.g. "it's not bad enough to be a problem," "self-diagnosis is unreliable, suck it up, nothing's wrong".

Hope you're hanging in there.

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