Every now and again, I find myself involved in a conversation along the lines of, “We should hang out! When can we meet up?” Almost as long as I’ve lived in Chicago, my answer has been, “Any day but Tuesday.” I’ve played sports or gone to dance on all but a handful of Tuesdays since I moved here, so that evening has always been out of the question.
Over the past month and a half, though, I’ve amended my answer. It’s no longer just Tuesdays — I can’t do Mondays, either.
I haven’t started any new activities. I haven’t joined any dance classes, picked up any sports leagues, or even decided to stop being flexible about what specific days I set aside to run or otherwise exercise.
I can’t do Mondays because I’m in therapy.
Not physical therapy, this time. Real therapy.
I’ve never particularly tried to hide the fact that I have anxiety. It’s not something that embarrasses me. I don’t often go out of my way to tell people about it (“Hi, so nice to meet you for the first time ever! My name’s Bethany, and I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was nine years old.”), but if it’s relevant to the situation (“No, I actually can’t be outside when there’s a thunderstorm, unless you’d like to help me recover from a panic attack,”) I’ll certainly bring it up.
For whatever reason, though, I’ve always been a bit more hesitant to tell people about therapy. I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grade making regular visits to a child psychologist, but I definitely didn’t include that in my “What I Did This Summer” report. I popped into the counseling center at college on a couple of occasions, but I never told any of my friends about it. I’ve even kept my current round of therapy on the down low from nearly everyone, save for two friends and my parents (and, now, the entire Internet), mysteriously disappearing every Monday evening and ambiguously talking about this “thing” I had or an “appointment” I couldn’t miss if anyone happened to ask why I couldn’t do Monday or where I was headed.
Every Monday evening, I spend an hour in a therapist’s office, talking about my week, my relationships, and my stress, anxiety, and the physical symptoms they create. Sometimes my therapist gives me goals for the week–track what you eat and your symptoms, go for a walk, talk to this person about that thing–and sometimes I just talk, taking advantage of the one opportunity I have to be wholly uncensored in regards to my feelings about myself and others to a completely neutral party.
I’ve known since November that I really needed to go back to therapy. After a spat of major self-image issues and some honest talks with friends late last fall, I started looking into therapy, but ultimately settled on self-help books from the library instead. While the various books I read helped tame the self-loathing beast to some degree, by February my stress level had shot up to 11 (as I alluded to a few times in various posts earlier this year). My life and every facet of it it felt like it was spiraling completely out of control. I couldn’t handle the volume of work I had to do. Every commitment, no matter how much I normally looked forward to it, felt like an enormous burden. Every relationship I valued seemed to be falling apart at the seams. My go-to hyperbole, “EVERYTHING IS BAD,” normally used under silly circumstances like getting (another) snowstorm or having to wear too many layers to avoid frostbite, stopped feeling like a joke and started to feel like the truth.
I needed help. Not self-help. Not Googled help. Not even help from my friends (though it was a friend’s suggestion to look into therapy during that time that got me to send the initial inquiry e-mail to my current therapist). I needed professional help.
My life is hardly daises and sparkly rainbows now that I’ve been in therapy for a bit. I actually just had a panic attack last week (that I’m sure my roommates, who I woke up at 2:30 a.m., convinced there was a fire somewhere in a unit close to ours and we were all going to die [there wasn’t. We didn’t.], would be happy to tell you all about), so clearly I’m not the picture of levelheaded bliss. What I do have, though, is someone I can talk to — someone who will listen to me, someone who will help me, someone who won’t make me feel like an idiot for being afraid of fire (among other things), or being stressed, or for freaking out every time my stomach hurts.
I debated whether I wanted to post about this. Privacy, airing your dirty laundry for all to see, etc. etc. But the more I thought about that, the more I became convinced I should put it up. If I had a chronic physical illness, I wouldn’t be embarrassed about the fact that I routinely met with a medical doctor. But there’s such a disconnect between physical illness and mental illness — having cancer is real and requires professional help, but having anxiety is a copout and only requires that you “settle down” or “get a grip.” It frustrates me that there’s still such a stigma surrounding both mental illness and seeking professional mental health help, which is why I want to stand up and shout it out for all to hear:
“I cannot heal or control my anxiety by my own power of will. I am currently undergoing professional help to help control my anxiety, and I am not ashamed to announce that.”
May is Mental Health Month, and I believe that provides all of us with the ideal opportunity to both asses our own mental health and our attitudes towards mental health in general. Depression is not being sad. Anxiety is not being nervous. These are real, debilitating conditions…but they are also treatable conditions. Depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition may be a part of your story, but they do not have to be your story. If you’ve ever struggled with your mental health or are struggling at the moment, I encourage you to seek out help, even if just on a trial basis.
We make time for friends. We make time for exercise. We make time to prepare wholesome meals. Make time for your mental health.