I'm sure most of you were just as shocked as I was to learn of Robin Williams' passing. Not only that he died, but that he did so by his own hand. It's unsettling to think that someone who brought so much joy to so many couldn't find enough of it for himself. In recent hours, we've learned that he was dealing with the early stages of Parkinson's Disease that likely compounded the anxiety and depression he was already grappling with. None of us- not even his wife- can truly know the depths of his despair or what exactly was going through his head in those final days. Maybe it's best we all remember him as the beloved comedian and movie star he was, rather than how his story ended.
His death, like most shocking events these days, has garnered a lot of attention and it seems like everyone is taking what they can of what happened and twisting it in to their own personal soapbox. That's the last thing I want to do here. However, I feel it does provide an opportunity for me to open up and share a bit of my own story with you all. I have struggled with managing my anxiety and depression for most of my teen and adult life in varying bouts of seriousness. While it used to bring me shame and humiliation, talking about my struggle no longer embarrasses me- in fact, it makes me feel more free.
I'll never forget my first panic attack. Anyone who has had one knows the horrible symptoms- your palms become sweaty, your heart starts racing for no apparent reason, and you are filled with intense fear. It started because my brother, whom I am very close to, was leaving for college when I was a freshman in high school. I was a little down about him moving out of the house, but was handling it for the most part pretty well. Then, one night I was lying in bed, and my thoughts spiraled out of control to the point where I honestly thought I was dying. If you've never experienced a panic attack, your first one is incredibly confusing. It started with me feeling a bit sad, then I started thinking "what if he gets hurt in college," to "how will I deal with high school without my brother there," to "my sophomore year in high school will be awful" to "Why do I feel like I'm dying?!"
While most people get through a panic attack after their trigger is gone (i.e. riding on a plane, being in a large crowd, giving a speech), I couldn't shake mine. I was literally in a state of panic for 3-4 days. It was terrifying. When I still couldn't shake the dread coursing through my veins by the 5th day, my parents took me to the doctor. He prescribed an anti-anxiety medication and also recommended a great counselor. I honestly shudder remembering those early days of struggling with my mental health. I was so confused. I had no real reason to be anxious or sad- I had a great life, a happy family, plenty of friends, and my whole life in front of me. It made me ashamed to be struggling with what seemed like teen angst- sadness that felt self-indulgent. But it wasn't self-indulgent. It was real.
For an entire year, I would wake up and pray that I could get through the day. It felt as if there was an all-consuming, black cloud over me that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get rid of. During that year, I was working on my anxiety and depression with a counselor, and also trying different medications in varying doses to see if something could make me feel "normal" again. Finally, the depression began to lift. I stopped being consumed by my "what ifs"- "what if I never get over my depression?" "what if I never feel happy again?" "what if I always struggle with panic attacks?" - and got back to being a normal teen again.
I suffered with a panic attack here and there throughout the rest of high school, but nothing too long-lasting. I had learned great coping techniques in therapy for how to redirect my mind when I felt a sense of dread coming on. I had also learned more about mental illness and how normal it was to struggle with it- that I wasn't completely insane for feeling depressed for no apparent reason.
Later on in my junior year of college, I went through a really awful breakup. While I began to pick up the pieces of my life, the old familiar demons of anxiety crept up, and I found myself once again in the throes of panic, dread, and depression. At least this time around, I understood my feelings better and knew I needed to see a therapist. The worst thing you can do when you feel depressed is isolate yourself, although that often seems like the most attractive option at the time. One book I found while going through this particularly dark time was Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss. This book unequivocally changed my life. Myss presents a compelling case for how our energy anatomy affects our physical anatomy and well-being. Here are a few quotes I loved from the book-
"Even when 'change is constant' feels like an enemy that has swept away a happy part of our lives, our lonely times will come to an end and a new part of life will begin. Consciousness is the ability to release the old and embrace the new with the awareness that all things end at the appropriate time and all things begin at the appropriate time."
“I am convinced that the deepest desire within each of us is to be liberated from the controlling influences of our own psychic madness or patterns of fear. All other things—the disdain of ordinary life, the need to control others rather than be controlled, the craving for material goods as a means of security and protection against the winds of chaos—are external props that serve as substitutes for the real battle, which is the one waged within the individual soul.”
I know my story isn't unique. Statistics say that on average, 1 in 3 women will grapple with depression at some stage in their lives. Erin of Elements of Style is very vocal about her ongoing struggle with anxiety, as are many other bloggers. While depression and anxiety are different conditions, it is not uncommon for them to occur at the same time. Over half of those who experience depression also experience symptoms of anxiety, and in some cases, one can lead to the onset of the other. I guess it was just on my heart to share my story, because it is a very real part of who I am that I am no longer ashamed about. In fact, in a way I am thankful for my mental health struggles because they have forced me to take a deeper look at myself and also to rely on the help and strength of others.
Thankfully, I am in a very good place now and feel I have found a great medication to manage my anxiety/depression as well as coping mechanisms for times when I feel overwhelmed by fear. People are always surprised when they learn I struggle with aspects of my mental health because I am a genuinely happy and outgoing person. But I've learned through my experiences and this recent event that even the most outwardly happy people can sometimes be secretly struggling to control their mental state of mind. And unless you share your struggles, the isolation can overwhelm you. Please know that if you feel alone in your sadness or lost in general, there are resources for you. If you live in Houston, Crisis Intervention is a great resource. Whatever you do, please know you are not alone in your struggle and that there is always hope.
All my love,