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The Importance Of Communication When It Comes To Mental Illness

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According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 26.2 percent of American adults — that’s roughly one in four — suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. That adds up to roughly 58 million people above the age of 18.

As someone who is currently undergoing the lengthy process of diagnoses/medication/re-diagnosis/new medication/rinse, lather, repeat, I’d like to address some portion of those people to say that it’s okay.

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like it’s okay. Sometimes it’s so scary, you don’t know if you’ll make it through. Sometimes you’re tempted to make sure you don’t make it through. But, I’ve been there, and I have news for you.

This is why you should listen to me: I’m a successful academic at the beautiful University of Virginia, I have irreplaceable friends and a gorgeous boyfriend, I wear pretty clothes, I’m pursuing my dreams and my basketball team always wins.

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 18 years old. When I was 19, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type II. When I was 20, I was diagnosed with a vague combination of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder.

Now, all those diagnoses are being stripped down and no one knows what’s “wrong” with me. All we know is that I’m a mess. I get panic attacks. I can’t sleep.

I’ve called a suicide hotline. Sometimes I can’t stop crying, but I never know why I’m crying in the first place. My dreams might be in jeopardy because there is a biochemical catastrophe causing a cacophony in my head and I can’t sort it out.

The point is, I’m not just dealing with teenage hormones — my brain’s chemical miscomposition is genuinely interfering with my life. I have an illness. I am sick.

So, to everyone else who also struggles, listen to one of your own when she says that it’s okay.

We fight every day against ourselves. We fight the enemies we can’t see — the voices that slip past our defenses unseen and whisper in our ears; the darkness lurking somewhere within; the jittery anxiousness that bounces up and down along our nerves like an antagonistic mine, waiting to explode.

We try to find peace in our minds while our bodies writhe and rage against us. We ride our unpredictable lives blindly into the unseen future, challenging the unstable world with unstable hearts. Sometimes confronting life is like fighting an enemy while only wearing half of your armor.

What do we need to do? We need to be honest. We need to ask for help. Most of all, we need to ask for love.

But personally, I had no idea how to do this. When I was first diagnosed, I would speak about things I felt, but only from a distance.

I recalled my thoughts as if I was explaining an isotopic molecule — “It’s a rarity, it’s explainable, I can explain it with a rational voice and reasonable tone. It’s normal, but unusual. It’s okay, we just don’t quite understand it yet.”

But that rational voice didn’t encompass the terror. It didn’t convey the agony. It didn’t sound anything like the raging whirlwind in my ears.

I needed help, but no one knew how badly. Friends told me they were “there for me,” but I never called them when I needed them. Everyone around me was so busy, so stressed, and so happy and who was I to disturb them?

I didn't want to be the burdensome best friend, who adds yet another responsibility to an aggressive list of “to-dos” and “to-makes” and “to-figure-out-eventually-at-the-library-at-four-in-the-mornings.”

I didn’t want to be the nagging girlfriend, who seems lovely and fun but is better characterized as a trap lying in wait to snake up with her tentacles of need at every inopportune moment.

I couldn’t figure out how to you reach for help when all demons are internal? How do you explain to someone that your life is superficially perfect but an inexplicable smoke hangs low, clouding every horizon?

How do you explain to the Toiling Desperate that you suffer not from sleep deprivation, or poverty or the unimaginable pressures of a competitive sphere, but from an inexplicable suffering that seeps into your bones?

How do you explain that your external life is better than you dreamt it would ever be, yet you still have nightmares? How can you explain to the sleep-deprived that you’re afraid to sleep?

I knew they wouldn't understand. After all, can you ever really express what really happens?

Can you ever really convey the sensation — the sharpness of physical pain, the pressure mounting on your chest, the hot sensitivity of a very particular pocket behind your left lung, the tears standing resilient behind your ever-flickering eyes, the crawling shadows worming in and out of your pores, the vast expanse that opens up inside you like Hades searching for the daughter of autumn that plummets into unseen universes, the invisible vacuum wedged stubbornly between your heart and those whom it cherishes?

I couldn’t show anyone — not when I felt how I Did. They would run from me, they would stare dumbly, they would regret ever saying they were “there for me.”

But eventually, I couldn’t do it on my own. Eventually I had to reach out and ask for help — not psychological help, but love. I needed someone to bring me to sunshine when I thought I was walking through the valley of death.

And you know what happened? They didn’t run. They didn’t laugh. They didn’t hide or stare or whisper. They said “okay.”

When you’re so terrified of scaring someone, that’s the best word you’ve ever heard. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t crazy. I was sick and they were volunteering to help me recover. They loved me.

Eventually, I grew more comfortable in sharing my feelings — not just experiences, but genuine feelings. I let my friends see me ugly-cry (which is a big deal).

I let my friends know that I was in  a state of emotional chaos and I had no idea why. I let them see my sickness and they volunteered to help me.

Now, I’m hopefully on the road to recovery. I’m not “fixed,” but I’m optimistic. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know what’s right — that I have friends and loved ones who will help me discover what’s wrong. And that’s the kindness that I won’t forget.

I can’t say that I’m happy about my struggles, but that I’m grateful for the insight I’ve gained through them. I learned how stable, loving and loyal my friends were.

I learned how to open my heart to others and how to communicate my feelings. I learned that even when we can’t trust ourselves, we can trust the people who love us.

Top Photo Courtesy: We Heart It