Aaron R. Davis
Straight talk: I am in a state treatment program for mental illness.
How’s that for an attention-grabbing lead-in?
I’ve always been emotionally troubled, ever since I was a little boy. Up and enthusiastic and happy and charged one day, down and depressed and sad and moody the next. I’ve been able to fight it off at various times in my life, but lately the pressure has been getting to me harder and harder and I finally decided to bite the bullet and seek help.
There were a number of reasons I was resistant. How much would it cost? (A concern assuaged by finding a partially state-funded center who worked to put me on a hardship program to keep the cost low.) Would I feel too guilty about taking the time out to focus on this? (Yes, but as I’m learning right now, I feel guilty all the time about almost everything, anyway.) And my two biggest concerns: Is the possibility of emotional illness even a real thing, and if it is, does that mean I’m admitting I’ve failed by seeking help?
To answer that first question: yes. Emotional illness is a form of mental illness. Sometimes there are neurological, chemical reasons that you are more prone to anger or depression or anxiety. I still see a lot of stigma attached to the idea. “Oh, you’re just being overdramatic. You’re making too big a deal out of things.” When I was in school, teachers brought up the idea that I might have a learning disability and might benefit from a slower pace. My dad rejected that idea out of hand and flat-out told me that learning disabilities aren’t a real thing, and that I just needed to pay attention and concentrate harder and stop being so distracted. I internalized that idea, and I really held on to it for a long time. I never discounted the idea of learning disabilities in others, but felt like I couldn’t let it exist in myself because it was wrong somehow.
That idea persisted until I spent several months teaching kids with learning disabilities and saw one child trying to take a state test and spending 15 minutes on every question, trying hard to answer them as though she were literally trying to navigate her way through a wall. I saw how hard she was trying and how at sea she felt and thought to myself: that was me.
But still the second question plagued me: if I give in to this idea that I need some kind of professional treatment, does it mean I’ve failed at, I don’t know, being normal?
This was a really hard one to get over. And it was all directed at myself, too. I mean, if I knew anyone who was doing the same thing, I’d support them and tell them they were making a brave choice. Despite what I was taught as a child — to be self-reliant and to hold it all inside and to just be strong and power through the fear and the hurt and the depression — I think it’s a really brave person who is willing to admit they need help. It takes courage to even realize that, much less to just go out and do it.
I finally gave in and sought treatment because I was just too overwhelmed not to anymore. I was suicidal. I was trapped. I was having a hard time leaving the house and the confusion and fear just blocked me and made me depressed and guilty and the guilt made me more depressed and the depression made me more afraid. I was locked in a cycle that was taking a shorter and shorter amount of time to get through, and I was worried where that might lead me, because as I got more and more desperate it looked like there might only be one way out, and it’s a way you can’t come back from.
So now I understand myself a little better, and I’m working on managing and eventually controlling my various disorders. (For the record, these are Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Non-Specific Mood Disorder, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia.) And I’m working on understanding myself a lot better and generally trying to mellow down and lose weight and try to figure out how to accept myself and be happy and comfortable in the world. I’m trying hard to find a measure of peace, and I’m trying not to lose myself while doing it.
I’ve come to understand that a lot of the anxiety disorders I struggle with are impulse-related. I can’t stop myself from reacting emotionally and getting caught in those emotions, which means I second-guess myself constantly and I take everything personally. I have the kind of self-esteem problems that make it difficult to accept compliments or respond to others. And it also makes me suspicious of people, because I find people — through no fault of their own, to be fair — don’t understand how it works and think it’s helpful to tell me to “stop worrying” and “face your fears.” It’s not helpful, but I understand that people feel like they need to say something because they want to be supportive or because talking about it is maybe uncomfortable.
I’ve come to accept that, yes, I have a mental illness. It’s in the books. It’s something I can manage. Maybe I can even control it. But it’s there and it’s part of who I am and I’ve let it define who I am for far too long.
I’m writing this because someone who reads this might also have the kind of problem that I had: that is, they might suspect or even know that they need help, but are worried that it makes them weak or a failure or that they might be judged. If that describes you, I want you to know: you are not weak. It is not a failure to ask for help if you need it. It is the essence of strength. I’m 36 years old. It took me a long time to learn that. It took me a long time just to admit to myself that I couldn’t do everything on my own and that it didn’t make me weak. It doesn’t make anyone weak. You’re not crazy. You feel isolated and scared and maybe even scared of being scared or guilty about being scared. A lot of us feel that way, and a lot of us — like me — need help understanding it so we can deal with it.
That doesn’t mean we’ve failed.
And it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy.
I fully intend to be.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.