Monday, August 11, 2014

Spark of Madness

This post is not about Robin Williams, though he is the catalyst for it.

This post is about mental health.

I consider myself truly fortunate to have never experienced clinical depression. Hope clings to me like an obnoxious fuzzy pink barnacle. I have, however, lived with serious anxiety problems for the majority of my life. I typically don't like to admit that they're serious, but they're something I deal with on a near-constant basis.

Even on a good day--and most days are relatively good days, as I have supportive friends and family--there is at least one fleeting moment where I am afraid that I am dying. Enough to make me check my pulse, enough to make my head reel.

I think my fear of cardiovascular diseases--specifically heart attacks and blood clots--was triggered when my Great Aunt Sheryl died. I was very little, probably only 5 or 6. I asked my mom what had happened, and she told me that a vein had burst in Sheryl's brain and that it was over quickly. I don't blame my mother for this at all; surely she meant to be comforting, to suggest that Sheryl had not suffered. Nevertheless, it was the first time I realized a person could die in such a way, and I was horrified. She didn't even have a chance to fight for her life. It was over in an instant.

It's funny--on the rare occasions I tell people that I'm anxious about my health, that I'm a hypochondriac, they almost invariably say, "it's not a brain tumor." I never think it's a brain tumor. I always think it's a heart attack, a blood clot, a stroke, even though there's not a significant history of cardiovascular issues in my family, aside from a few sad instances.

The trichotillomania began when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I started pulling out my eyebrows and eyelashes. I actually consider myself quite lucky in this regard; many people with trichotillomania pull out the hair on the tops of their heads, or on other people's heads, and sometimes they even eat their hair, which is incredibly dangerous. Only eyebrows and eyelashes seems like a pretty fair deal to me. Why specifically eyebrows and eyelashes? I don't know. The crazy answer would be that they are the correct texture.

Trichotillomania is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but without the obsessive part. It's simply compulsive. I don't even realize I'm doing it most of the time. It's an anxiety-driven reflex. When I started it was all the time, but through years of wearing bandages on my fingers all day, I managed to stop doing it in public. Now it only happens at night, when I'm falling asleep, or when I'm getting ready for the day.

I didn't experience my first panic attack until I was in college. I was actually studying in Beijing at the time. I was in my bed, and I started shaking uncontrollably. It was hard to breathe, and my chest hurt. I cannot begin to convey how frightened I was. I thought I was going to die there in a foreign country, far away from everyone I loved. I didn't know how to get help. I didn't even know what the Chinese equivalent of 911 was. I just laid there, wondering if this was it. Eventually I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I felt somewhat better.

I had another panic attack when I got home from China. Then another one when I started my senior year of college. Then another, then another. Finally I went to a psychiatrist, who prescribed me a small dose of antidepressants. This medication improved things immensely, and I still take it to this day.

It doesn't always work. A few years out of college I had a panic attack so bad that I actually did go to the hospital--which is a relatively common occurrence for people with panic disorders. Nice way to rack up unnecessary medical bills. I would take trichotillomania over panic attacks any day. It is awful having feelings of doom creep over your shoulders and up your throat so often. Most of the time, though, if I take my medicine and keep myself busy, I can cope.

I would even argue that I thrive. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining; for the most part my life is wonderful, ideal, far better than I deserve. I am close to my family who loves me. I have so many loyal friends who love me. UNLV is paying me to write fiction. I am incredibly grateful for all that I have.

Maybe I'm so grateful because of my anxiety. You learn to appreciate what you have when, on a frequent basis, you're convinced that you're dying and that you're going to lose it all.


Those close to me know I'm not very good at watching movies. I completely missed many films that were ubiquitous throughout my youth. I liked Aladdin and Jumanji when I was little. I saw Dead Poets Society once in high school. I never saw Mrs. Doubtfire.

Robin Williams positively impacted so many people, he brought so much joy to people. He was beloved, and what I find so heart-wrenching about his death is that he probably knew perfectly well he was beloved a million times over--he just couldn't feel that love. This is mere speculation on my part, but speaking from the point of view of someone with anxiety, I can say that when you have mental problems like these, what you know and what you feel don't often align. When I'm having a panic attack, there's always a part of me that knows it's a panic attack and nothing more. That rational part of my brain remains. But it doesn't matter, because I feel like I'm dying, and the feelings usually win.

I hate that people only pay attention to depression and anxiety when a celebrity dies. Robin Williams' death is undoubtedly a tragedy; the world has lost a good man and a great talent. But you know who else has mental health problems? People you know. A friend, a teacher, a coworker, a parent. Me. Anxiety and depression are common, and nobody ever wants to talk about it. Society shames those of us who struggle with it into keeping quiet. People use "crazy" as an insult.

I'm sick of it, so I'm talking about it. You should talk about it, too.

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