November 22, 2016

8 Ways Having A Mental Illness Has Changed Me

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Christian Gertenbach
Christian Gertenbach

1. I get tired easily.

Until I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, I was extremely paranoid and could not sleep at night. I was afraid someone was going to murder me, sometimes even hallucinating for months at a time that dead people were living in my house and trying to kill me. So, I was tired during the day and napped a lot. Now that I’m on the right medication, I’m getting a good night’s sleep, but I’m still tired during the day. The anti-psychotic I take for my symptoms of schizophrenia has sedative properties. That means it makes me tired. So, despite finally being able to get a good night’s sleep, I still take naps. And going out is a big deal for me. Going to the mall or hanging out with friends is something I can only do once or twice a week at the most.

I just get worn out easier. I’ve had to slow the pace of my life down a lot, and this was really hard at first because I always liked to be out doing something, but with a quieter, more relaxed existence, I spend less money, write more, and have less anxiety. Sometimes I get the feeling that people think I’m lazy, but I keep up with the dishes and cleaning the apartment. I exercise. I do things. I just can only stay at the mall for two hours as opposed to all day. And after that, I’m going to take a long nap. It’s okay. Getting tired easily has given me patience with myself and with others. Everyone lives life at their own speed.

2. I respect triggers and have some of my own.

I liked watching horror movies and psychological thrillers with my friends in high school, but after a while, I began to realize that I couldn’t handle certain things. Watching scary things causes me to hallucinate and even have delusions sometimes. I remember telling my friend that we couldn’t watch the horror movie she brought over in high school. She actually got mad at me, saying she didn’t understand why I suddenly couldn’t watch horror movies anymore. No matter how others react, take care of yourself.

When I’m on the internet, and I see something scary, I immediately close my computer and distract myself. If I’m on Facebook and someone posts a picture of a spider (it actually happened twice last week), then I hide the post and do breathing exercises. Spiders are my most common hallucinations and just seeing a picture of one can trigger that immediately. I’m a lot more sensitive to what I say around others, and I respect triggers now that I understand them.

3. I take better care of my body.

Up until about a year ago, I was so thin that doctors often asked me if I had anorexia. I didn’t. I was just naturally skinny. Maybe a little too skinny, often losing weight from anxiety and stress, but I didn’t have a problem with the way my body looked. Now that I’m on the right medications, I can function normally without hallucinations, delusions, crippling depression, or mania. However, I have gained forty pounds. So when I went from a size zero to a size four in jeans, I was pretty upset. And when I expressed this, people said I should be happy to fit into a size four, that some people kill to fit into a size four. But they misunderstood.

I don’t think I’m fat. It was just hard accepting such a drastic change in my body image. I felt like my identity had changed. I couldn’t button any of my jeans, and my gut was hanging out of the bottom of my shirts. Weight gain and being bloated is a side effect of the medication, and I have to live with that. In a way, though, I’m glad this happened because it has made me start exercising more, which is good for depression (and my overall health). I also pay more attention to what I eat, choosing oatmeal for breakfast instead of a donut and salad for lunch instead of a greasy hamburger.

4. My views on welfare, disability, and being a full-time mother have changed.

I was raised to believe that you work for a living and that those who do otherwise are just lazy. And then I was hospitalized. And then I couldn’t keep a job. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? Every time I’ve tried to work before, I’ve had to hide in the bathroom vomiting because I was so anxious. That, or I start hallucinating from stress. Have you ever tried to ignore hallucinations at work? It’s not easy being friendly and working in a fast-paced environment when a gigantic spider is dangling from the ceiling trying to eat my head off. I’m not on welfare or disability, but I sure as hell have a lot more understanding for those who are. And I have a lot more respect for those who choose to stay home to raise their kids. I’m not even a mother, but cooking and cleaning is hard enough.

I get it now, and I’m glad my perspective has changed because I’ve learned that my worth is not based on the amount of money that I make. I’ve learned that I have plenty to offer and just because our capitalistic society does not value it, does not mean my strengths are not valid or appreciated. I contribute to society through my writing and the relationships I have with other people, as a consumer and a creator. I contribute to my household through cooking, cleaning, and running errands. I’m not a freeloader. I’m not lazy. I’m just have strengths that capitalism doesn’t find valuable. And right now, I’m glad I’m not working because it has left me with no choice but to pursue writing, which is something I’ve always wanted to do but was too afraid.

5. My social anxiety has made me more open and honest.

Having social anxiety means I hid in the bathroom in high school to avoid even talking to my FRIENDS. I just needed time to myself to relax and decompress. My school was so big and people were so loud. I was exhausted trying to keep a conversation with someone every second. Now that I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’ve found that I make and keep friends a lot easier if I am just honest and open from the start. Usually I blush deep red, and it’s easier to just say, “I blush a lot,” and get it out of the way. When I’m nervous, I usually talk too little or I’m telling you my life story. Although I wish I could find a happy middle, I’ve found that people respond really well to me being upfront about how I’m feeling.

Simply saying, “Sorry I get nervous sometimes,” or “I haven’t hung out with anyone in a while” will help them understand that you’re not trying to be rude or off putting. When I get panic attacks and can’t find a safe place to calm down, I tell whoever I’m with what’s going on with me. This can be really hard if I’m crying or can’t find the right words. Texting someone is easier than telling them sometimes even if we are together. Just letting them know what to do and how to help you is the right way to go. Otherwise, you’ll be upset and they won’t know why. Most of the time, people will do all they can to help or understand as long as you’re open and honest.

6. I stopped being so judgmental.

I’ve been through hell and back in the past five years. I’ve tried tons of different kinds of medications. Some made me worse, some made me better, and some had no effect on me at all. I’ve experienced locked jaw, twitching, akathisia, vertigo, and vomiting, just to name a few side effects. For a while, my eyebrows and my lips would twitch. I felt humiliated. I couldn’t keep eye contact with people, and at one point, when I went to refill my medication, they refused to fill it for me. They thought I was on drugs. My mom had to come up there and fill it for me. I felt horrible. Those are just a few things that have happened. But because of my experiences, I’ve become less judgmental and learned to give people a chance.

Some people deal with skin picking, hair loss as a side effect of antipsychotics or a result of Trichotillomania (hair pulling), difficulty swallowing their food as a side effect, cavities or lost teeth from depression or dry mouth from their medications. Don’t just look at someone’s greasy hair or bad teeth and assume they’re lazy or gross. You don’t know what they’re dealing with. It may be a miracle that they are still alive, that they have bravely continued to battle their inner demons despite judgement from the world and the mean voices in their head.

7. I have accepted my odd quirks that started as symptoms but became part of my personality.

Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder means I experience intrusive thoughts and obsessions. I also experience paranoia. In my personal experience, the intrusive thoughts are usually images of people killing me and the obsessions are usually about germs. That’s how my mind has operated ever since I can remember. It’s stressful. It makes me anxious. It puts me on edge, even making me irritable at times. Seeing someone strangle me over and over again, while I’m trying to pay attention in class is difficult and upsetting. So I’ve developed routines to ease the pain of my thoughts. For instance, I check underneath the bed or in the closet at least three times a day. Sometimes I also check all four corners of the ceiling. It’s the OCD and paranoia exacerbating each other.

I have intrusive thoughts of people hurting me and I’m paranoid, so I’m afraid a murderer is hiding under the bed, in the closet, or behind the shower curtain. I have been doing this ever since I can remember. I got really good at doing it when no one is looking. I also wash my hands two or three times when I’m upset. It used to be more, but I’ve gotten better about that. I would keep going to the bathroom to wash my hands over and over until they started bleeding. I won’t drink after you unless I’m in a really good mood. Also, I get freaked out when people touch my food. If you do, I’ll be okay. I’ve gotten a lot better at forcing myself to eat food that’s been “contaminated.” But if I’m having a bad day, I won’t even eat my food if you breathe close to it. Those are just a few odd things about me that are symptoms of my illnesses but have become parts of my personality. I’ve accepted that.

8. I’m more friendly, open, and understanding of others.

Since I started my blog where I write about my life with mental illness, so many people have messaged me telling me that they’re relieved that someone feels the same way they do or they’re glad to have someone speaking out against stigma, especially surrounding illnesses like schizophrenia. Because of the response I’ve gotten, I have started to view the world in a new light. For so long, I was convinced people were stalking me, trying to kill me and my family. I thought dead people were hidden in the walls of my house. Even typing that is hard for me. The painful, intrusive thoughts and delusions were exhausting, and I truly believed the world was a scary place full of people who only wanted to hurt me.

Now that I’m properly medicated and speaking out about my illnesses, I’ve become a lot more friendly and willingly to talk about things that I once hid deep down inside of me. The world doesn’t want to hurt me. I know that now. And I’m relieved, to be completely honest. It’s that simple. Those of us in the mental illness community can relate to one another, lean on each other, and learn from each other. We know what it’s like to feel misunderstood, overlooked, and not taken seriously. That is why I’ve changed how I approach others. I try to do so with an open heart and an open mind. My door is always open if you need someone to talk to. TC mark

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