Even as I type this, I feel ambivalent about opening up about my struggle with mental illness. I have to preface this piece by stating that my experience may not mirror the struggles of others, and I do not presume to speak on behalf of those who battle mental illnesses. I do hope that by sharing snippets of my own reality, I further open up the conversation around a topic that remains largely misunderstood, silenced and stigmatised. I hope that you will continue to read this with an open mind and a compassionate spirit, and that you will begin to speak out and about mental illness and mental health in your social and professional circles.
I discovered that I had anxiety in May 2017, and it was a relief. I had a term to label my experience, and I was not weak or pathetic as I had initially thought on those increasingly frequent days I found myself crying in the bathroom at work. My mind was just working against me. So I, being the researcher and an aspiring epistemophile that I am, decided to search the internet to discover more about this thing called anxiety, and cure myself.
Anxiety, which takes on multiple forms, is not just feeling nervous or shy, or perpetually worried (although it often includes that, and exhibition of those traits can lead to a diagnosis), and people who have anxiety will manifest different symptoms depending on the type they have been diagnosed with. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Agoraphobia are only a few sub-classifications of anxiety, whose sufferers exhibit different symptoms and reactions. However, a common denominator is an underlying fear that terrifies and often debilitates us. It is a fear that is sometimes triggered by a specific event, person, or word, and it is, also, a fear that sometimes bursts forth sporadically and without provocation. I recall how one evening I was driving with my mother and enjoying a perfectly normal conversation when, unexpectedly and without motivation, I had heart palpitations, my ears rang, my stomach churned, and I desperately wanted to peel the skin off my face for some reprieve from the attack.
Mental illness is not cute. And one mental illness compounded by another - known in psychiatry as comorbidity - is a special kind of hell. According to the Shanghai Archives of Psychiatry, the prevalence of comorbidity in mental illnesses has increased dramatically, and has become the rule rather than the exception. Mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depressive disorders, often co-exist with one another, but are not frequently discovered and properly treated since medical professionals have a tendency to focus on the illness they are most knowledgeable about, or the illness that most overtly presents itself. And so people who may suffer from both depression and anxiety are inadequately supported and treated, and often misunderstood. We are told to “stop overthinking”, “snap out of it”, and to try and “think positively”- revolutionary revelations that we had not once considered doing. To suggest to someone with a mental illness that they hold the complete and ultimate power to ending their illness is significantly damaging as it situates the blame of the illness on the shoulders of the one suffering. The cavalier and dismissive position that medical practitioners take, particularly professionals who deal with physical illnesses (did I tell you that very few people in the medical profession take psychiatry seriously?) as it relates to mental illnesses is an attitude that we see manifesting in mainstream discussions on and reactions to mental illnesses. In my efforts to destigmatise mental illnesses, I often relate it back to experiences I am certain neurotypicals have had.
At some point in time, each of us has experienced anxiety. You may have felt some agitation or discomfort in your stomach, commonly referred to as ‘butterflies’, and/or a tightness in your chest before a presentation at work, or a job interview. If you were an unfortunate victim of crime, you may remember your heart accelerating, the shaking and/or muscle tension, and the rapid release of adrenaline into your bloodstream- symptoms that are common during ‘fight or flight’ mode. All the above and much more are typical physical manifestations of an anxiety attack that sufferers of anxiety disorders experience, only there is no imminent danger or provocation. And you live with this daily. And you cannot successfully turn it off.
My anxiety has frequently immobilised me and silenced me. It has made me undervalue and loathe myself. I have doubted and second-guessed myself to the point of exhaustion, and even though I subconsciously know that I am capable, valued, and have value to contribute, my mind- at the sub-conscious level- begs to differ and persuade me otherwise. There is a perpetual battle that rages inside the minds of those who suffer from a mental illness. We know that we have little to fear, and much to be grateful for, and that we are privileged and appreciated, yet we strain to convince ourselves thereof. Additionally, the isolation we feel and the condemnation we experience from those with non-existent or superficial understanding of our very real experiences exacerbates thoughts of inadequacy, weakness, and incapability.
Initially, it was difficult for me to speak openly about my anxiety disorder, or my depression which I am just beginning to understand. People often require long and detailed explanations thereof that I cannot competently explain. Or they stare at you as though you’ve just grown two heads, when, really, it’s just two minds. Or they distance themselves from you out of fear or shame. Or, worse, they do not believe you.
The perception that mental illness is a sign of weakness, that sufferers thereof should be ashamed of, is ludicrous, and one I hope to smash, destroy and overhaul. People who suffer from any mental disorder still have a capability to be high-functioning individuals with good days. It is said that to show weakness is to deserve shame. But I am here to show weakness, and I am not ashamed. There are many in South Africa and globally who are dealing and just beginning to deal with mental illnesses; the journey can be a long and arduous one. It can be a forever one. It can be a fatal one. And I want to help with it. SA.
Learn more about mental illness and where to find help at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.