It is Time to End the Secrecy: My Mental Health
It’s time for the truth. It’s time to stop hiding. This is my story.
Everybody knows someone
Bang, bang, bang. The knocking is getting angrier and quickly. I am ten years old, lying in bed at night, home alone, and scared to death. Plan A of ignoring the pounding at my front door is not progressing well; time for Plan B. I stagger to the door and inquire as to who might be on the other side. Shooting back immediately, “It’s the police; open the door now!” Option 1: open the door and pray for real policemen; Option 2: call 911. Option 2 sounds more appealing. I offer back, “One minute,” and sprint for the telephone. Inspired by background music of fists full out pummeling the door, I fumble around and manage to get the numbers 9-1-1 onto the phone. The call button is clicked and after exchanging pleasantries of “9-1-1, what’s your emergency,” I report that armed men are at my door, demanding it be opened in the name of the police. “Tell me your address.” I blurt it at her. “Yes, the police are at your door.”
Almost in perfect synchronization, my door goes silent. I undo the bolts and am greeted by uniformed men who seem to be focusing all the energy which moments earlier went into banging my door down towards a guilty smile. “Didn’t mean to scare you son; are your parents at home by any chance?” I hadn’t seen them since yesterday. “Well, if you do hear from them, please pass along my phone number. Have a pleasant night now.”
Deep breaths, deep breaths. Returning to my ritual of trying to will myself to sleep won’t be an option at this point. I’ll have to wait for my parents to come home. When they do arrive, I report the night’s events and the process begins of determining how such a misunderstanding could have occurred. After some investigating, it is determined that a very devoted thief stole my father’s license plates and attached them to a separately stolen car in a series of events which led to the police paying a visit the wrong house. Case closed.
That, however, is hardly where my story ends. Tomorrow, ten year old me will repeat the cycle of waking up, fixing breakfast, catching carpool to school, eating the lunch I prepared, ignoring my homework, and then finding some food for dinner. I’ll probably play some video games until I trudge over to bed. One might ask, “Where were your parents and siblings?” The answer begins when I was just past my tenth birthday and my well-meaning parents tapped into their entrepreneurial spirit and opened their own business. Though it was not in any way their intention for the business to become consuming, making it go required them to devote hours deep into the night. While I do not blame anybody nor harbor any ill will, with three older brothers for the most part all out of the house, I had a lot of time to myself.
Fast-forward eleven years. It’s July of 2014. I am now closing in on the age of twenty-one and this little episode with the police is a small blip on a large radar. This radar is filled with anxiety, depression, and many unpleasant memories. I have spent the greater portion of my life trying to understand why. Why do I constantly have unnatural feelings of anxiousness and sadness? Why haven’t I been able to think clearly for so much of my life?
The first major obstacle to getting answers and getting healthier was overcome three months ago when I figured out what I have been sick with all this time. Some overdue googling got somewhere - Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That’s where it started, at least. A period of self-discovery and therapy then led me to the next couple of terms - Social Anxiety Disorder and Depression Disorder.
At long last, the symptoms which had tormented me for most of my life now had an explanation. I now had a reason why I feel unnaturally scared and depressed when I should not. I did not have to wonder anymore why the numbness, tight muscles, or throbbing of the heart and forehead. It all of a sudden made sense why I often pray not to bump into people or assume the world does not want to see me. There was some sort of explanation for why sometimes I can think clearly and sometimes, for several days at a time, I cannot think in my usual way. Words will be hard to piece together, I will mumble, seem detached and upset. When this happens, I will sit by helplessly desperately trying to piece together sentences in the way I could just the other day. Symptoms of my Social Anxiety Disorder, when these “mental shutdowns,” as I refer to them, began around the time I was twelve, they persisted nearly all of the time. Gradually, I inwardly worked on reducing the “shutdowns” to the point where I was experiencing them approximately half of the days of the week by the time I was about twenty.
Figuring out why was great, one of the greatest days of my life. Finding that cure which has eluded me for so long would change everything.
The next major obstacle to getting healthier was to figure out what to do about what I just decided: enough is enough. Though I had just recently figured out the diagnosis, I had known something was up with my head for a long time and told nobody. I thought I could fix this on my own. It’s my head darn it; I will cure it! Well, it hadn’t worked. I only get one chance at a childhood and I had wasted it fooling myself. The time had come to do something so outrageous that I swore I would only ever do it as an extreme last resort; the time had come to tell someone the truth.
Today is July 18th, 2014. The day is Friday and Shabbat is closing in fast. If I want to act, I’ll need to do it soon. I’ll need to act soon not because of the electronics shutdown mandated by Shabbat, but because I am starting to feel that feeling I have felt hundreds of times before. The anxiety and depression have been too strong for too long. I have once again fought valiantly, but the worst of the Social Anxiety Disorder will be arriving shortly. Soon, my head will partially shut down, and I will not be able to think clearly, let alone communicate at my normal level. There is no telling when I will have full access to my head back. Yeah, if I’m going to tell someone the truth, it’s going to be now.
On goes the computer and up comes Facebook chat. I carefully click on the friend who I decided long ago is the only person who just might understand what I’m sure nobody else will. Better type it quickly before I come to my senses. Wait, this is ludicrous; what am I doing?
A different Etan seizes control of the computer. This Etan has had enough. This Etan will not let the last eleven years of his life define the next eleven. Into the chat box it goes, “Is it OK if I weird you out for a second?” “Sure,” comes the instantaneous response. We chat for a bit and agree to meet in person soon to discuss further. Thanks to this friend’s urging, about one month later I will walk into YU’s Counseling Center and begin the slow road towards recovery. It will take some time for the therapy to become effective and to get to the right medication. It won’t be easy to make the necessary changes to my life approach, but it will slowly happen.
As I sit here putting my story on paper, the only word which can properly describe the past two years is relief. Thanks to a combination of medication, counseling and focused changes to my life approach, I have gotten exponentially healthier. My brain chemistry has at long last started to be corrected. The anxiety and depression are (very) slowly softening and the mental shutdowns have gotten better. While sometimes I win the battle and sometimes my illnesses do, there is no doubt that I am beginning to win the war. I assure you, there is no greater relief.
There is, however, one glaring problem which I cannot ignore. I am too small of a speck on too large of a radar of mental illness. People across the world are suffering, mostly in silence. There is a consensus negative view in society about people with mental illnesses; call it a stigma if you want to. It seems like every time a newscaster reports a major shooting, for example, the next two words out of his or her mouth are “mental illness”. This is a grossly misleading narrative.
All of this stigma has expectedly led to a wave of silence. Many who have a mental illness live in silence. Many who have the means to educate the world on what it really means to have a mental illness remain silent. Then there is the worst form of silence: so many out there who have a mental illness do not even realize they have one. This is due to the overall lack of mental health education. I would know; this is exactly how I spent many of my first years with a mental illness, not even realizing that anything was even wrong with my head.
There is a blatant hole in the theory that having a mental illness somehow changes a person. If one wants to say something is wrong with a mental sickness, then just to be consistent, one would have to say something is wrong with somebody who is sick with cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease or any type of ailment. It’s actually pretty straightforward. Just how having something like chronic migraines does not define the person or change the very essence of what he or she is, similarly having a mental illness is not a person-defining ailment. Sure, like any sickness, mental illnesses require treatment and other relevant measures, but they in no way change the person.
This absurd stigma is not an inconsequential issue which can be swept under the rug until it is convenient. The lack of mental health education kills. It is numbing to think how many suicides could have been prevented if there was less silence and more people embracing treatment.
If just one positive could come from my years of living silently in sickness, it is for anybody reading this that has a mental illness or thinks that they may have a mental illness not to repeat my mistakes. I beg you to be open and seek treatment. Please. We need to educate the world about the truth of mental illnesses, that they do not fundamentally change the person affected in any way. It is our calling to let people with mental illnesses everywhere know that they are not alone. It is bad enough that we’re sick; why should we or anybody feel as though they must keep this from their friends or even their family?
Together, we can be the generation which finally educates the world about mental health. Together, and only together, we can erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and change countless lives.