Wednesday, May 27, 2015

May, Mental Health Awareness Month

As a preface, this has been the most nervous I have been to share a post in a long time. I've written and rewritten the post in my head numerous times. I've thought about every word and hovered over the "Publish" button too many times. Here it is...

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Not as well known as February, Heart Disease Month, or October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both of which I can recall learning about since elementary school.

In college, I worked alongside a professor on research analyzing the barriers to care for mental illness following active service for veterans. We dove deep into this research for a little over two years together and eventually, our work was published. I even conducted my own comparative study looking at college students and their perceived barriers to care for mental illness with stigma being the overwhelming barrier for both populations of veterans and college students. Not access. Not availability of treatment. The stigma, which we as a society have placed on seeking treatment for mental illness.

Almost three years ago, Summer of 2012, there was a traumatic event that occurred within my family.  While this is not my story to tell, it still deeply effected me. At the time, I was living in a somewhat toxic roommate environment and the combination of the two lead me to seek treatment for depression. I wasn't myself any longer and it was obvious to those who knew me well, though I masked my struggle on social media. My doctor prescribed me a prescription medication to alleviate the side effects, but I was too embarrassed to take it. Afraid that someone might see the pills and judge me. Possibly even label me.

As a result of this time, a series of other triggers were set off; my anxiety and OCD. Anxiety is hereditary and knowing the women in my family, it was inevitable that I would experience some form of it in my lifetime. I would get anxious in traffic, parking garages, coming home every night with my extensive list of preparations for the next day, interacting with others, going on trips, and so many other everyday scenarios that are normal to others. I was having multiple breakdowns (sobbing hysterically, shaking, shortness of breath) within a week before I finally decided to seek medical treatment. In my mind, it was just my perfectionist personality which had also yielded most of my accomplishments, so I was deeply terrified of medicating myself for the problem.

I started taking daily medication yet also working with a therapist as I didn't want to become a walking pill box at the age of 25. After multiple sessions and conversations, I was sent to a Psychiatrist for OCD. I was mortified and told very few people about this appointment. I sat in the small office with walls were covered in crooked picture frames and watched the birds in the pond out the window as I answered every question hoping to avoid the diagnosis. The OCD had become so prominent, it was controlling my life. I would have friends over mid week for pizza and wine, then would spend hours after they left cleaning my already meticulously tidy apartment. Each night, I would spend 45 minutes to an hour vacuuming all of my furniture to rid it of the dog hair, Febreezing every pillow and drape of my curtains, hand-washing then drying every dish I had used, and washing, drying, folding, and putting away my clothes from the day. If a splash of toothpaste landed on the mirror while brushing my teeth, I would have to clean the entire mirror. I was obsessed with this idea that my apartment had to look like it was ready for its magazine photo shoot at any given moment.

It was consuming. The best way to treat the OCD is through medication. While I hate that I have to take a daily prescription, I love that I am able to leave dishes in the sink for a few days (not in the ew kind of way, but in that you've only drank out of cups for the past few days and you're too exhausted to dedicate time to cleaning each cup) and I've scaled the laundry down to once a week. One time, I even left the dirty clothes on the bathroom floor. While parts of me still cringes at the thought, I feel liberated that these thoughts no longer consume me and control my daily life. I can go to sleep knowing that there are dishes are in the sink and laundry to be done. The pillows are disheveled on the sofa instead of perfectly posed for their imaginary photo shoot. And thats OK.

I write this not because I want accolades or praise for my own struggle with my mental health, but because I want others to know that it is OK to seek medical treatment for mental illnesses. I follow Yolanda Foster on Instagram where she courageously displays her battle with Lyme Disease and her hundreds of thousands of followers support her and uplift her during her struggle. I don't commonly see posts on mental illnesses, until its too late. With the constant accessibility to others' highlight reels through social media, we are increasingly putting more pressure on ourselves to project our own highlights and are ashamed of the not so glamorous #nofilter moments. Like when I didn't take the depression medication at the fear of what others may think of me if they knew, how many other diseases do we willingly decide not to follow through with the suggested treatment? I don't hear anyone saying I'm going to forego my diabetes medication in the hopes that it goes away on its own.

Its ironic how foreshadowing my research was of what would become of my young adult life, but I am thankful that through the combination of treatment and medications, I am able to speak candidly about my experiences. While still terrified of the vulnerability, I hope to have contributed to the awareness aspect of Mental Health Awareness Month in some capacity.



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