I struggled with mental illness.
There, I said it.
The first part of breaking the stigma surrounding mental health is to admit it. And so, to you, my friends – and to the entire world – I admit that I struggled with mental illness.
I share my story for two reasons: one, to make a tiny, little dent in removing the stigma surrounding mental health; and, two, to encourage you to seek help if you or someone you love is suffering from a mental health issue.
My struggle with mental health was with intense and recurring symptoms of anxiety. It occurred in the weeks and months preceding my June 1, 2013 heart attack – four years ago today.
At 45, in seemingly good health and with limited family history of heart disease, I had a heart attack. While my untreated mental health issue culminated in a heart attack, it could have just as easily ended with a nervous breakdown. Or it could have continued and/or progressed into prolonged anxiety, which likely would have led to clinical depression.
My anxiety was precipitated, in part, by having lost my oldest son, Tom, 18 months earlier. But it wasn’t his death directly, but instead the fear of losing another child. I had survived Tom’s loss; our family had survived Tom’s loss; our marriage had survived Tom’s loss.
Surviving his death was the hardest thing any of us had ever done, and it required strength, prayers, sacrifice, and faith of nearly indescribable proportions. Having survived the loss of one child, I did not think I could survive the loss of another child.
I feared that if – for whatever reason – I lost another child, our family would be distressed; our marriage would be decimated; I would be devastated. I was sure I would crawl into a corner, or crawl into a bottle, and wait for the days to pass until my own death would end my pain.
It wasn’t necessarily to suicide that I feared losing a child, but to a variety of catastrophes I would see on TV or read about in social media. My anxiety did not encompass my entire life. I was performing well in my job. I was interacting fine with my family. Instead, the anxiety invaded my thoughts mostly in the quiet moments, most vividly as I lie in bed. It was in those quiet moments that my mind would kick into overdrive; and when it did, it always concocted a dire scenario.
Try as I might to push out these thoughts, my mind kept allowing them back in. With each scenario that invaded my mind, I would race to concoct a way to protect myself and my family from catastrophe.
Lacking omnipotence, I knew I alone could not save my family. While I prayed often and asked God for help, I did not turn it over to Him and HIs omnipotence. I was trying to protect myself and my family from every conceivable scenario that might occur, and my anxiety grew as I realized I could not do that on my own. I felt hopeless.
This mental anxiety manifested itself in my body. My stomach was in knots. Sleep was fitful. Lacking productive sleep, I’d turn to heavy doses of caffeine…which impacted my sleep…which led to more caffeine…which led to more poor sleep. My breathing shallowed and quickened, which led my heart to beat at a rapid rate.
The night and morning before my heart attack, my heart was beating so fast and so wildly that it felt as though it was going to break through my chest.
I was a mess.
I needed help.
I needed professional help. I needed help from a counselor, one who could help me work through my anxiety. But I didn’t get that help. I didn’t get that help for a variety of reasons.
I was too proud to acknowledge, or too ignorant to know, that I was experiencing these symptoms. I convinced myself this was just a phase, and it would pass. I convinced myself I could figure this out on my own. Seeking professional help never crossed my mind as a serious alternative.
My body was being pushed to its limits. My heart beat so hard and erratically that plaque broke free in one portion of my heart, to which my body responded by clotting the exposed wound in the artery called “the widow-maker.”
I know that – but by God’s grace – I am here today. I thank Him every day for this second chance. I thank Him for bringing me to a realization of the poor state of my mental health through my heart attack. I wish I had been educated enough, informed enough, strong enough to instead get that help from a trained mental health professional.
Many people who have been challenged with mental illness have shared their story with me. Most do so in hushed tones; society still greets those with mental illness as lesser or weak. The truth is, we are all somewhere on the spectrum of mental health, and we all struggle with some or certain aspects of mental illness.
On one end of the spectrum there is joy and happiness, at the other is despair and hopelessness. The events of our lives shape our journeys; but more importantly, the help we get to understand, respond to, and cope with those events is what determines where we reside on that spectrum.
If you are struggling with hopelessness, anxiety, or feelings of worthlessness, please get professional help. And if you are at peace with where you are at on the mental health spectrum, please greet others who may not be at your spot with grace and compassion.
Understand that life events are a huge factor in our mental wellness; seldom do others know our struggles.
Understand that mental health challenges are not a sign of weakness or inferiority.
Understand that, by accepting mental illness as a real and solve-able issue, we can open the doors for more people to 1) understand their condition or that of their loved ones and friends, and 2) get the help they need to improve their mental wellness.
Thank you for doing your part to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.