Millions of people suffer from mental illness and I am one of them. Millions more are affected because a friend or loved one suffers from a disease that may be difficult to diagnose, and even harder to endure. This October 7-13th, under the theme of Cure the Stigma, the National Alliance on Mental Illness urges everyone to get involved because whether we are willing to admit it or not everyone is involved.
In the US alone, one out of five adults and children will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
Members of my extended family on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled with mental disorders. In addition to genetic factors, chronic illness, death of loved ones, natural disasters and traumatic stress, any extenuating circumstance can tip the fragile brain chemistry.
Though anxiety and depression may be the most common disorders, there are dozens of others from personality disorders, PSTD, dissociative disorders, psychosis and schizophrenia to name just a few.
My maternal great grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, lost his 8-year-old daughter, when she died from an illness 2 weeks after arriving on Ellis Island. Three months later, his wife died giving birth to my grandmother. Living in a new country with no support system, he sank into a depression and never recovered.
Though perhaps part of my genetic make up, my depression is more likely a result of living with a chronic illness. Clinical depression will be triggered in an estimated one third of people with serious medical conditions especially in those with a biological vulnerability to a mood disorder.
Depression becomes a common component of diabetes, heart disease, lupus, fibromyalgia, Parkinson, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and others illnesses where reoccurring symptoms wreak havoc with one’s life. Some illnesses like Lyme neuroborreliosis, MS and other inflammatory diseases attack brain tissue. With no cure in sight, the end result can be a spiral of despair.
Ever the athlete, I blamed myself. I thought that I should be mentally tougher and physically stronger to overcome the pain, illness and depression, but self-blame serves no purpose.
Eventually through research, I finally found a doctor who could treat my medical condition, which greatly improved my mental state. I sought solace on-line in the words of strangers, who were coping with the same nightmare disease.
Even though chronic illness has no quick fix, knowledge can be empowering. The more I understand my disease, the better I was able to accept and learn to live within the limitations it puts on my life.
Society scorns vulnerability, so we hide our weaknesses and suffer in silence.
Many illnesses involve stigma and shame, especially mental illness. Don’t buy into it. The only people who truly know what you are going through are those people who suffer from or live with a loved one who is suffering from a mental disorder.
Pain, suffering, and a sense of hopeless zaps our energy, so take baby steps to bring you peace. If you are the caretaker give yourself a break. If you are the patient take a time-out. Walk in the woods, work in your garden, read a good book, watch a funny movie, stretch your limbs.
So many times I have felt like I cannot go on. When I can bear it no longer, I cry. Then I pick myself up off the floor and go back to battle. On my worst days, I don’t look too far ahead. I tell myself I only have to make it through the next few moments. Then minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, I survive.
You will too because you still have so much to offer your family, your friends, your community!
Reach out. Speak up. Help Cure Stigma.
You are not alone.