Friday, June 8, 2018
I remember so clearly the day the pain in my chest had become so unbearable that I thought I was having a heart attack. Over time the chest pains had gotten worse and worse. There was a definite pattern to them, by Friday they were unbearable, but by Sunday night they were all but gone. Come Monday morning they would start to creep up on my drive in to work.
I assumed that, despite being in my mid-30s at the time, the stress of my job was placing stress on my heart. The day it all came crashing down was in the summer, late on a Friday afternoon. I felt that there was a sumo-wrestler sitting on my chest and I could no longer breathe. I drove myself to the emergency room, not even cluing in at that moment that were I able to drive a car the pains were likely not due to heart strain.
I was immediately wheeled into the cardiac room of Bonner General Hospital. Lesson learned, you tell people your chest hurts and before you can say “there’s no place like home” you’re on a table, stripped to your undies & hooked up to every monitoring device within reach.
Not a heart attack. That’s what they told me. Your heart is fine. Seriously? But I can’t breathe. My chest hurts. No, you are having an anxiety attack. A what? That’s ludicrous I thought. I’ve never had that happen before. They showed me the tape from the heart monitoring device. No problems. It’s your brain. I couldn’t process. They sent me home and told me to contact my GP for an appointment.
A week later I was in her office and she confirmed that it was anxiety. How was I feeling now? The same. She wrote a prescription for Xanax and suggested I might give that a try when things got too bad. I never did. Instead, I simply changed jobs. I figured the root of my anxiety was the stress of my job and for a time it helped, as did the regular exercise I started.
I wish I could say that things got better. They didn’t. I went from full blown anxiety to total depression in a matter of months. It got so bad I remember telling my husband that maybe it would be better for our family if I were dead. This is not a joke. I remember it was in Ponderay, Idaho, just five minutes from the Walmart on our grocery shopping trip. It was a sunny day and I remember feeling relief about getting that off my chest.
At the time my husband was incredulous, and asked if I were serious and really thought that was true. My gut check told me that yes, I did. I felt I was a terrible mother, terrible wife and terrible at my job. I was miserable in our town and in my job (yes, this was after taking a new job that I ultimately LOVED).
Over time he began to see that I was slipping. My thoughts about my inadequacies as a human being took dominance over any positive thoughts I could have had. The mental tug of war between the angel and the devil was exhausting.
I became disengaged from everything and my anxiety came back. At the time I did not recognize that trying to drown my anxiety with alcohol was amplifying my depression. I can see clearly now.
One Saturday, as almost every Saturday, I drove the mile long bridge from Sagle to Sandpoint for a grocery store trip and I saw a semi-truck coming from the other direction. I clearly remember thinking to myself “I wish that truck would slide on the ice and push me into the icy waters below. Then everything would be OK.”
That was, in that moment, my lowest point. That evening, after a verbal altercation with my husband he said the words I needed most to hear: you need to talk to a therapist. Thankfully he recognized that my behavior was not directed at him, but a product of a mental imbalance I was incapable of getting myself out of. On Monday morning I made an appointment and by that Friday I was on Lexapro.
It took weeks, months really, for me to return to normal. But I will admit to feeling the clouds lift even after just about a week on my meds. I continued therapy for several months until my therapist moved to Montana. I continued on Lexapro from 2008-2011. Under doctor’s supervision in June 2011 I slowly ended my dependency on antidepressants. And it was good and I am OK.
The hardest part of being on meds is the stigma that is attached to them. People always assume you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” which is absolute bullshit when you’re depressed unless you can turn your bootstraps into a noose. Mental illness is a real thing and it’s worth as much empathy, support and understanding as cancer or pneumonia. And yes, sometimes good medicine.
Obviously I’ve decided to share my story again because of the recent news. I was saddened to see the passing of two notable celebrities in two days. And I am sorry for their families. At the same time I am grateful that this has caused a light to shine on the dark places of our lives. Yet people every day grapple with mental health issues and it’s something that is bigger than Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
In two days from now the news media will have some other tragedy or political scandal to talk about, Kate & Anthony will be a memory.
Please don’t forget them or the millions of other people who struggle from mental illness. Please keep the conversation going on forever.
Tell your story without shame.
Hold out your hand.
Mental illness comes in so many shapes and forms. There’s no shame in having it and no shame in getting help. And no shame in talking about it.
I share my story and I hope others will share theirs. And let’s continue to shine a light on all those dark places so we can work to remove the stigma that mental health is simply “all in our heads.”