Happy Mental Health Month! And I do mean happy, because it’s an awareness month, and awareness should always be celebrated.
This blog is all about dysautonomia but I want to focus on topics relating to mental health this month. Dysautonomia does not necessarily mean you will experience a mental health crisis, but mood can be disrupted by the autonomic nervous system, as can life with a chronic illness.
Regardless of dysautonomia’s role or presence, mental health is worth talking about because the more we talk, the less stigma exists. Let’s take the stigma, examine it closely and then completely destroy it. Smash it into a billion tiny pieces. I don’t like it.
I try to write the words “I have depression” as much as possible on this blog.
I’m making up for all of the times I had the opportunity to say it in real life but felt too scared to open my mouth and say the words.
I was afraid that people would think me weak.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t understand.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t care.
I did say these words in doctors’ offices. I said them in hushed tones to new teachers so my classmates couldn’t hear. “I have depression and health issues, so this is a note from my mom explaining some of my problems,” I’d say at the beginning of every year to my teachers because my school refused to give me a Section 504.
But I rarely said those words, “I have depression,” to my friends and peers. A few times I wrote them out in a letter because opening my mouth to let them linger in the air was too scary.
I wasn’t as afraid to say the words “I have chronic anxiety” and “I have ADHD.” It was hard to hide those elements of me—I was a loud, sarcastic teenager whose nerves ran high and whose attention wavered. Those traits were readily demonstrative, I almost didn’t need to speak the explanation, but I did anyway. “This presentation is making me feel like I’m going to be sick, I’m so nervous, I can’t handle this anxiety,” and “I had to re-read the chapter three times because I couldn’t focus and couldn’t retain anything I was learning.”
Part of the reason the words “I have depression” and the associated explanations were so hard was because it didn’t fit my image. It didn’t fit the girl who would do anything to get the first and last laugh. It didn’t fit the girl who could recite episodes of The Office and The Colbert Report verbatim. It didn’t fit the girl who was a little more than power hungry on her high school newspaper.
Additionally, hiding depression to my peers came naturally for me.
I have a headache. I’m tired. Today’s just a bad day. (The “just a bad day” was the closest to the truth as I got in my excuses for a lot of people.)
I put on the brave face outside and broke down at home and in safe spaces.
The depression got to a point in high school where hiding things was no longer an option. I couldn’t keep up the charade. People could tell something was very wrong because my spark was gone and I was openly sad–I didn’t have the energy to fake it. I’d gone through depressive episodes before (pretty much one a year), but the episode my senior year of high school was more powerful and harsher than I’d felt before.
A friend from school was giving me a ride home one day and she asked when “the real Shannon was coming back.” I paused and said I didn’t know. It caught me off guard, in that moment I thought I was acting like Real Shannon. Turns out, during depressive episodes, I wasn’t fooling anyone.
This was the first time in my life that I had to face the reality of living an open and honest life… and it was terrifying.
I want to take the power back. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide because I’m afraid.
I want to be able to talk about all of my mental health conditions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I will, but I want the option. Hiding yourself in fear is no way to live.