I have a beautiful grandmother in Heaven that I look forward to getting to know one day. While I did spend time with her before she passed, I didn’t get to know who she really was because mental illness had taken her true spirit years before we met. Unfortunately, when my grandmother began suffering from mental illness in her thirties, the medical field was not capable of treating her illness in the efficient way they could do so today. Not understanding why her mother was so sick and unable to care for her like she used to, my mom took on the household duties of cooking and cleaning as a teenager. Decades later, my mom had her first personal experience with depression and anxiety. While very different from what her own mother suffered, my mom was given the opportunity to empathize with what her mother went through… and also her daughter… me.
At age 24 I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder with a tendency to be Obsessive Compulsive. Looking back on my childhood, I see that this illness was present even then. While in elementary school, I would get a feeling of impending doom when the windows of my classroom revealed dark and stormy weather. On one particular school day, I was extremely worried about my family because my younger brother was being taught not to touch the knobs on the stove. I was certain that my house would end up in flames. Standing in the hallway before school began; I took a deep breath and then raced down a few stairs and out a side door. I was heading for home, determined to thwart any catastrophe.
Later in life, I suffered great anxiety whenever I came to a crossroads. Making monumental decisions about my path in life was nearly impossible to do as my options seemed to swirl tumultuously in my head. My husband light heartedly takes the credit for my eventual diagnosis as his marriage proposal (or more accurately, my inability to celebrate the happy opportunity) sent me to the psychiatrist. The pressure of making such an important life decision was beyond my ability until I received treatment. The psychiatrist prescribed Paxil and after a few weeks I was able to accept the good things that were happening in my life without being suspicious of worst case scenarios.
As those who have sought medical attention can attest, a diagnosis often comes as a relief. Your suffering gets a name and it has a treatment plan. Hope is restored! Having disturbing thoughts was described as part of the illness. Having a thought that was uncharacteristic of my being didn’t make me a bad person or even a “crazy” person. I was a person with an illness. The psychiatrist sited an example of a horrid thought that might come to a new mother who suffered from anxiety. He told me that a woman with OCD may have thoughts of hurting her baby- like snipping off the tops of the baby’s ears! It is hard to even type it, but I was so grateful to hear him voice that such a thought could occur and that if it did, it did not mean that the thought was a desire. It would merely be an unwanted thought—one that frightens the thinker to no end if she doesn’t understand why she is having it. I was so glad to have this conversation before I ever got pregnant, because I knew that if I ever had such thoughts without understanding them, I’d be devastated.
After a few years, I transitioned from Paxil to Prozac which I continue to take today. I’m so grateful that this medication exists and that taking it enables me to be mostly free of the symptoms of Anxiety and OCD. I say mostly because the illness is still there. The medication does not and will not cure me. But, it compensates for a chemical imbalance in my brain, allowing me to function efficiently in life (except for when it comes to laundry,) and I am able to have joy.
It breaks my heart when I learn of women who live in darkness, refusing to seek treatment for mental illness because they believe erroneous ideas like “they just need to snap out of it, they are not praying hard enough, or that taking medication is a sign of moral weakness.” Would you ever tell a person with a broken arm to toughen up and get over it? Please don’t do that to yourself or let anyone convince you not to seek the medical help that will bring a light to your darkness.
I am so grateful that The Creative Mama dedicated an entire week to Post-Partum Depression and Anxiety. It is wonderful that we can discuss mental illness without shame and with a sense of hope. As I read each lovely woman’s article, I knew I had to lend my voice to the discussion and reach out to those whose struggle with depression and/or anxiety do not correlate with a pregnancy. Some cannot close the door and move onto a new chapter, as mental illness is part of a lifelong story.
As part of my lifelong story, I continue to suffer symptoms of anxiety depending on my circumstances and depending on the time of year as I relate very much to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Experience has taught me that there are certain things I can do to feel my personal best— getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, taking my meds, eating right, and getting plenty of sunshine! Writing things down on a piece of paper is my go-to remedy when times are tough. I write my irrational thought/fear in one column and the correlating actual reality in another column. Seeing reality in black and white helps me recognize and believe the truth (which is always better than the fear.)
I am glad to know that I need not suffer in silence, that I can voice my struggles and be understood by wonderful people who have similar trials. Thanks to modern day medicine and faith, I live with hope. I know better than to feel like a lesser person because I have a mental illness. Instead, I have learned that I am strong. And so are you. While I regret that my grandmother didn’t have the advantages we have today, I rejoice for all of us who do. And if one of my daughters ever shares a similar struggle, I will be happy that she is growing up in a world where mental illness is becoming more and more understood and that those with it can go forward in confidence.
Clair Dickson is an Army wife, mother of four, and family portrait photographer. Formerly an art teacher, Clair continues to enjoy being creative through writing, homemaking, and teaching new ideas and skills to others.