What mental illness do you suffer from?
PTSD, panic disorder with agoraphobia, depression.
When was the first time you noticed it and how?
I had asthma as a kid that I grew out of. Suddenly, in middle school, it started up again. Or so we thought. It's difficult to tell what's supposed to be normal as a kid. I thought I was weak and stupid for pretending to be sick all the time. It wasn't until I started missing a lot of school that my parents noticed a problem, and it wasn't until I passed out on the front lawn of the school from panic that we all realized it was a serious one.
How does it affect your life as a whole?
I'm completely disabled. I sometimes spend whole weeks unable to go outside. Some days I can barely even leave my room. Other agoraphobes can work from home online, but my stress reaction is so intense I can barely keep myself and my surroundings clean, much less have a regular job. I spent years overeating to force a food coma reaction and now I'm having to lose weight or risk permanent heart and joint damage. It's not all bad. As a result of working to better myself and my thinking, I have developed a strong sense of empathy and understanding. Over a decade of therapy has given me the ability to help those around me with processing their own emotional challenges. I'd definitely rather not live with my disabilities, but there have been some small benefits too.
How does it affect your day-to-day?
Day to day I have to be rigorous with my routine. I'm naturally a very chaotic person and it's challenging to make myself stick to the patterns that have been proven to help me. I find reasons to go outside on days I can, and I let myself rest on days I can't. It's often difficult to forgive myself for doing nothing in a week, even though those around me say it's fine to rest when I need it. It's an ever-present influence on my life and there isn't a moment of my day where I don't have to consider my intense stress reactions to every little thing.
What have you learned about it?
I've learned that every brain is different. In the beginning, I was bombarded with tips and tricks for managing stress and "living a happy life." None of them worked. I had to work diligently for over a decade to find a system that works for me. I've taken dozens of different medications at hundreds of different dosages trying to find the perfect balance. I've practiced different meditation techniques, yoga, breathing exercises, diet changes, vitamins, marijuana, etc. I had to sift through the mass of stress management styles to find the ones that work for me. The thing that took me WAY too long to figure out is that quite often, the technique that worked yesterday won't work again today. I need a toolkit of strategies that I can draw from.
What has it taught you about yourself?
That genetics is a cruel gamble. There's a book called "The Body Keeps Score." In it, the author describes the physical changes in the brain that happen when the brain initiates the trauma reaction. Connections that exist in a healthy brain get dismantled and other ones established in order to make the person more paranoid (among other things) to supposedly help with survival. The unfortunate part is that some people have a stronger trauma reaction than others. Two people can experience the same thing at the same time and maybe only one walks away traumatized. Maybe both are traumatized, but one is slightly more paranoid than usual and the other is disabled by panic attacks. My reaction is about as intense as it gets, and I often find myself cursing my genetics as a result.
Have you found anything helpful in coping with it?
For me, coping is all about managing stimulants. I can't ever have caffeine, and sugar is a rarity. I like to play video games, but I have to be honest with myself and only play on days that I can handle it. I also stop playing games or doing other stressful activities at 8 pm sharp. That way, I can take 3-4 hours to cool down before sleep. I take a hot shower, read a book, watch calm YouTube (usually ASMR), or maybe work on my stories. I have to be productive enough in a day that I feel like I'm contributing to the household, but not push it so much that I make myself panic. Learning to forgive myself for panic days is something I still struggle with. My biggest help is my girlfriend. She's supportive and cuddly and only asks that I never give up on making myself better. I'm truly blessed to have someone who's willing to take care of the financials in exchange for companionship. I'd probably still be cutting myself in my parent's house if I hadn't taken the risk to put myself on a dating site. (Note to those who are disabled and looking to date. Be upfront about your challenges! There are people out there who are looking for someone like you. It takes a while to find them, but trust me, they exist.)
Describe a time in which you felt empowered after doing something in spite of the disorder.
Definitely making it to my best friend's wedding. His family has a beautiful property in Vermont where they held the ceremony. I live in Seattle, so it was a difficult trip. I was part of the groomsmen, and he asked me to spend a week out there to help set everything up and keep him sane before the big day. Using every trick in my book, I did yard work and every other conceivable chore to help out. I did my job as a groomsman and was even able to enjoy the 200+ person outdoor party for a couple of hours before needing to go back to the hotel room. I paid for it after getting home with a couple of panic weeks, but it was worth it.
Thank you for managing a blog like this. I hope my experiences can help someone out there who thinks they're broken beyond repair. Mental Health is an journey, not an event with finality.