Yes, you read that headline correctly. I am living with mental illness and I am proud of it.
Mental illness always seems to have a negative stigma. Either you are “surviving,” “coping,” or “struggling.” But I say, with pride, I am living with mental illness.
My struggle started almost six years ago after the death of my father. I got a call from my mother that he was being life-flighted to a hospital in the city I lived in but everything should be okay. I met him at the hospital and had the very 1990s ER moment of chasing doctors through a hospital with my loved one on a gurney. I sat in the waiting room with a friend who was kind enough to give up her Wednesday night to sit with me, waiting to hear when I could see my dad. A doctor, Kendra (I will never forget her name) came out and said the news was grim…very grim. She said he was incredibly sick and if there were a family member who needed to be there, I needed to call them asap. I called my mother and she was broken. She was dry-heaving into the phone and I could not convince her I could get her the 100-mile journey to be with my dad. So, I held my cell phone over his intubated body so she could say her goodbyes. And I slept in the hospital waiting room with another wonderful friend waiting for the inevitable news that my dad had died.
That news didn’t come. In fact, he fought back. He thrived. He woke up after three days of being in a coma. Only then did my mother make her way to Tennessee to visit him. Until her dying breath she would tell you she was there the whole time. That was the experience that showed me I had a mother, not a mom, for the first time. Everyone deals with grief differently and I have to respect her point of view, but that doesn’t take away from the abandonment I felt those three days sitting by his bed, afraid to leave in case a doctor came by to see him.
My warrior father was lucid for two days before his condition started to deteriorate. His life could have been prolonged by going back on a breathing tube but his wishes were clear – he did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. We made the decision to keep him comfortable and let him go in peace. I was in the room when he took his last breath. I say now that I wish I wasn’t, but if I hadn’t been I don’t know if I would feel any better. I saw him take his last breath. The man who took pottery lessons with me in the summers, encouraged my self-expression through art even though I couldn’t draw a stick figure, and who helped me develop a love of spin classes was gone.
I sought out a counselor two weeks after his death. I was having trouble coping with the loss and my mother’s false memory of what happened was getting the best of me. It seemed like a natural thing to do – to seek out a person who could help. A simple internet search brought me to my saving grace, Kristi. I was so lucky that the first counselor I tried worked for me. She felt my pain, listened with intention, and offered tangible suggestions of how to handle my grief as well as my resentment toward my mother. She was, and still is, a God or higher power send.
About six months ago I started seeing a nurse practitioner who could prescribe anti-depressant medication. After exhausting my options with Kristi I was at a place in my life in which I needed more support – in the form of medication. I wish I had made that decision sooner. Let me say, I am so PROUD of myself I made the admission I needed a little extra help. After dealing with the extended illness and death of another loved one, combined with being a full-time employee as well as a full-time graduate school student, I had hit a wall. I knew talking to Kristi once every two weeks, although so helpful, wasn’t enough at the moment. I have been on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds ever since and it is one of the top 5 decisions of my life.
This goes back to my original premise, that I am proud to be living with mental illness. Because I am, for the first time in a long time, living. I am no longer dreading leaving my house. I am actively seeking out new experiences to enrich my life. I will visit 11 European countries in the next seven months. I will graduate with my Master’s degree with honors. After so many years of feeling like I need to keep my struggles locked away, I am free. To those of you out there struggling, there are so many people who care. Acknowledging you need help is the bravest and strongest thing you can do. Taking that one huge step can lead to a lifetime of rewards. I’m proof. So if you are struggling and thinking you can deal with your mental illness on your own, don’t be afraid to ask for support. Because while you might be able to deal on your own – you can live with the help of others.