The Stigma of Mental Illness: Voices from the Sisterhood
I tried medication, reluctantly, when I was much younger but it made my heart start racing and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. After that, I was never going to go on meds again. I would just deal with my anxiety the best I could. Living with severe OCD became more and more difficult. I saw how it was affecting my life and my children so, VERY reluctantly, two years later, I tried a different medication. This time, I didn’t have the same side effects–just a bad stomach for a couple of weeks. I stayed with it and am still taking the medication. My life is a thousand percent better and I know it is because of the drug I am taking. I still have a few side effects, but none as awful as constantly “spinning” as you guys call it! I don’t tell people in my life that I am on medication. It’s not that I’m so ashamed; I know I really need it. But explaining it to others is another story. It’s easier just to keep it to myself.
I was so ashamed I needed medication that I kept it in a Tylenol bottle so that nobody would see it. But guess what? It helped me so much, it gave me my life back. I was even able to date again. I’m less ashamed now. I’ve even posted a few things on this website!
My mother and father were the types that did not believe in medication. In fact, they didn’t believe in mental illness. My mother used to tell me not to air my dirty laundry in public. Even after they passed, my brother and sister and I felt the same way. I lived with depression for a long time and a lot of anxiety too but I never talked about it with anyone. Once, I tried to tell my doctor but he didn’t really seem to understand my symptoms and never mentioned getting any kind of help. Finally, I stumbled on a website about mental illness and realized that I needed to do something. I called my insurance and found a psychiatrist and I was shaking when I went in the door. Even though I was scared, we tried several different medication combinations over the course of a year until we found one that worked. I also started therapy. I kept saying I needed to get off the medication as soon as possible but my therapist pointed out that I was a better mom when I wasn’t depressed and anxious. I try to remember that whenever I freak out about taking the medication. I still have not told my family because they would judge me.
Nobody in my family seemed to have the depression and anxiety that I dealt with since high school. (Actually, my uncle clearly has some sort of issues. But nobody talks about it.) I had a loving family, a great education, I was comfortable financially, I had a great husband. I was in therapy off and on for years, but I never considered medication because that was for people who really had problems. I just thought I was overly sensitive. Then I started to get panic attacks and ended up in the emergency room thinking I was dying. They told me in the ER that anxiety disorder is a real thing and that I should see a psychiatrist about medical treatment. Getting the right medication has been quite a process and side effects have been an issue. I wish I didn’t have to be on medication, but I now see how long I suffered because my problems did not seem “real” or as serious….which was not true.
Where I’m from, there’s no such thing as anxiety. People who complain about anxiety are called “Nervous Nellies” or “Worry Warts.” You get made fun of if you have mental problems. So I never talked about it with anyone. For more than 10 years, I had “episodes” which I know now were anxiety attacks. I just thought I had a bad heart. If anyone back at home knew I was taking anti-depressants, I would never hear the end of it!
I used to think anxiety medications were the easy way out. But then my daughter started having panic attacks and it was a nightmare. She missed so much school and stopped hanging out with her friends. We tried therapy and yoga and deep breathing and all the natural treatments out there. None of them stopped the dizziness and stomach problems she had every single day. Finally, she begged us to let her take something for the anxiety. Thank goodness we did. She is a different person now!
From Emily’s daughter:
Lots of my friends have mental illness–anxiety or ADHD mostly, but a few people I know are bipolar. Some of us take meds and some don’t. It depends on your therapist, I guess. But we don’t judge each other about it like older people do. We all talk about it all the time. My mom was so upset about it, but I think she gets it now.
People gave me such a hard time about my medication that I lied and said I went off it. But I can’t really go off it because I can’t go back to living like that. I’m not being dramatic, but my life was seriously not worth living. I didn’t do anything because nothing made me feel any better. Depression is a serious illness. If I didn’t take medication, I might not be here.
It took me years to give in to Mags’ persistent suggestion that I needed meds to manage my anxiety and depression. I always thought of myself as such an upbeat and determined person–I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just exercise and meditate the anxiety away. Believe me, I tried. I thought Mags was nuts to take medication and I let her know that. I especially was hard on her when she was pregnant. I was so judgmental! But then my panic attacks started, and there was no pushing through that. The only thing that gave me any relief at all was medication, and every day I am thankful that those meds are out there for those of us with brain disorders. My only shame is how badly I must have made Mags and other Anxiety Sisters feel about taking meds before I understood that mental illness is real and often requires medical intervention.
Anxiety and panic attacks meant that I spent a lot of my 20’s, (the time when I wanted to develop my career and enjoy life) stuck in my house dry-heaving and shaking. My family members would always encourage me to eat “healthy” and exercise. But it became clear to all of us that this was not a viable solution because everything I ate (when I could get anything down) when right through me. It’s also pretty hard to exercise when you are dizzy, shaking, and can’t eat or even leave the house. My therapist believed strongly in trying to muscle through and not letting your anxiety stop you from doing anything. However, when it got to the point when I was unable to take a shower and get to work, she said “Enough. You are being tortured. You obviously need medication.” My one regret is that I tried to push through for too long….I suffered a lot…
Founding the Anxiety Sisterhood is my way of helping others relieve their suffering. I would never push meds on anyone (except for Abs–she so desperately needed them!), and I don’t think medication is always the best treatment for mental illness. I just want people to stop judging those of us who for whom medication is the best treatment. We all deserve to live our lives fully, don’t we?