Changing Perspectives: Mental Illness + My Own Struggles
I was 7 the first time I learned about suicide.
I wore a dark blue dress. My mom, aunts and uncles and I filed into pews while people in hushed tones remarked, "I knew she had problems...." "She seemed normal to me." "Who would have guessed it'd be this bad?" and "I feel so bad for her little girl..." I didn't know the woman, nor did I know why I was there. I watched a father and his small daughter crumble at the pulpit as they promised to never forget her. I remember that the little girl couldn't have been older than 5 or 6. It was the first funeral I was cognizant of. I filed that moment away in my memory under the suicide file. Hopefully to never be opened again.
At 13 I encountered suicide again in church as my pastor, in the midst of a raucous sermon boldly proclaimed, "Suicidal thoughts are selfish. I'm sorry, but if you commit suicide, you are only thinking of yourself!" The cacophony of applause filled the room and my mind with premature stigma.
When I was 14 or 15, this uncomfortable topic was yet again presented to me when a close friend confided in me that they were self harming. "But they seem so normal..." I thought to myself. They were hiding their scars behind bracelets that read WWJD? and had John 3:16 ironically saying they would not perish, but have everlasting life. My friend begged with me on the phone not to tell anyone.
That lasted about a day.
I was so freaked out with this already very taboo topic. What if my silence led to my friend's death? Like any smart student, I went straight to my guidance counselor. I sat on the couch next to her desk. She was frantically shuffling through papers and click-clacking on her desktop computer while I told her what my friend had told me. I wasn't even sure if she was listening to me until I said, "Y'know my pastor says that suicide is selfish." She stopped shuffling and click-clacking, turned her head, and pushed her glasses down. She looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, "Your pastor doesn't know what he's talking about." Stunned, I just blinked back at her. She continued, "Suicidal thoughts are due to a chemical imbalance. It's a matter of biology, psychology, not faith."
My encounters with mental illness led me to believe there were two binaries in human life— normal and not normal. The desire to be normal affects more than just this sphere, it affects body image, sexuality, gender, class, race, everything.
Mental illness is one of the greatest of these when it comes to the normal-not normal dynamic. It's a topic that's so stigmatized that it's a miracle we have any resources at all for people with mental illnesses. For the not-normal people.
At least I thought that way until I realized that I struggle with my mental health.
Throughout my childhood I managed to make the distinction between the normal people and not normal people, always putting myself on the normal side. Because I'm not crazy like those people. But I managed to think this way while struggling with acute anxiety attacks. Somehow I just didn't think those took me out of the running to be a normal person.
I'm almost 20 years old and I get panic attacks every single day.
It started with insomnia. I think I was 13 at the time. I spent nights crying and hyperventilating because I was so freaked out at the prospect of not sleeping. That anxiety eventually led me to stop sleeping. This spanned over months. My mom told my pediatrician, "She's just worried about my recent health issues and starting a new school year." That sounded good enough for my doctor. That day I walked out of the doctor's office with a pocketful of anxiety medication and sleeping pills.
But as it goes with my anxiety, the insomnia went away just to be replaced by a new demon. Health-health. For a long time I was convinced that I could be sick at any moment. After I finished meals I told myself, "You're going to throw up." It wasn't logical in any way— I was perfectly healthy (physically at least). But it was that anxiety for a while.
Once I realized that, newsflash Skye, you're not dying, I thought I was fine for a while. In my senior year of high school, I went to a sleepover at a friends house. While watching a movie I suddenly felt like I was having an asthma attack. My chest got tight, my heart was racing, and I couldn't breathe. I went to the bathroom and sat on the floor holding my knees in my chest. I genuinely thought I was dying. I didn't sleep at all that night, and instead found myself doing breathing exercises I found on Tumblr.
So it was (and has been) breathing for a while. And other things since then. The specifics aren't necessary, and you don't need every minute detail of my anxiety problems. What matters is how for the longest time I thought I was normal. Then I realized that normality isn't real. (Surprise: It's a social construct, as are most things.) We all have our struggles. My mental illness isn't something I've cured. It's a day to day struggle that I'm just now understanding how to manage. Almost 1 in 5 Americans struggle with mental illness. It's time to stop pretending that their (our) experiences aren't real or legitimate.
Mental illness isn't a choice. It's not a matter of, "You just gotta believe enough!" or something you need to get over. Just like a physical illness, it's something that needs management and care.
Where my faith enters the conversation is the way I deal with my struggles. I talk to God about my issues. I ask Him to give me the wisdom to discern when I'm having a panic attack so I can deal with it properly. I ask for his strength and love when talking with people who also have mental illnesses, so they know they aren't going through it alone. Which is a fact noted in Romans 8.
Romans 8:38, 39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Yoga helps a lot too, although admittedly I haven't kept up with it as much recently because of my winter class. But yeah, breathing exercises, lots of bible reading/journaling, prayer, yoga etc.. they help with the way I see my struggles with mental health and anxiety. But obviously they don't fix it. So if you find yourself feeling like the 1 in 5 Americans, 2 in ten, 500 in 2500, talk to someone about it. Preferably not me at 13, cause I'll just tell my guidance counselor. Get help, let people pray for you. Talk to God about it. If you aren't religious, talk to a therapist about it. Someone.
Here's the National Suicide Prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255.