A note: this piece is my own experiences with mental health issues. A trigger warning for those affected by depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. Please be cognizant that these issues may be discussed. I am not qualified to dish out advice on this other than what I’ve learned from my experiences and this isn’t intended to encompass every possible experience with mental health issues.
Explaining a panic attack to somebody that has never experienced one is about the same as trying to explain what a color looks like. It’s not really possible and it’s mostly useless.
For me, a panic attack can manifest itself in two different ways. The first is what I’ll call the black hole. This is when my body feels like it is collapsing in on itself. Catching my breath is difficult, my heart beats fast, I feel like I’m going to start sweating profusely. All of these physiological signs of elevated central nervous system activity then triggers the mental feeling of anxiety. When I’m caught in one of these, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever feel okay again.
The other is more of a generalized panic attack, and this is more of my common anxiety manifested a bit deeper. It’s that feeling of needing to accomplish so much in so little time, only to realize I’m never going to accomplish everything I need to. Then I wonder, what even is the point? I’m not happy and I’ll never be happy or fulfilled or adequate so why waste my time. It’s hard to be motivated to do anything during this sort of generalized panic attack, so I’ll call this type a hopeless panic attack.
Other than panic attacks, generalized anxiety is debilitating in many ways. I’m well aware of my triggers and I know how to “fix” the anxiety, but that’s just it: it doesn’t matter. It still comes. The skill is dealing with it to get back about my day. Until I experienced these deep feelings of anxiety and depression, I never knew how somebody could feel like that. Mental health is so difficult to explain, partly because it can often feel foolish explaining our feelings. So often when I explain what I’m anxious about, I feel ashamed as the words exit my mouth. How could I be anxious about that? That’s so dumb. But it isn’t dumb, it exists and it’s real.
That sentence alone is what set my life on a different course. I ignored my mental health for far too long, convincing myself it wasn’t “bad” enough or it was good material for my writing or my art. I wanted to be a tortured artist because I believed it would make me great. I romanticized my depression and my anxiety and considered it to be less than others, meaning it was less real. None of this was okay. It took too long for me to realize it. It wasn’t until Alyssa’s death that I realized I had to do something about it. I was legitimately concerned I would only reach deeper into a depression that would eventually feel insurmountable. Not everybody realizes this soon enough. No matter if they do or not, all are equally deserving of our compassion. I was particularly fortunate because of my healthcare situation, my support system, my writing platform, and many other factors that came together at the time.
The gross reality is that mental illness is treated poorly in the US; it is both stigmatized and lowly prioritized in our broken health care system. These factors combined with the already huge burden that mental health is means that it can be nearly impossible to find the most appropriate care.
I was so impressed with the solidarity I witnessed today on World Mental Health Day. The world is a better place when we work together and we find common ground, especially when that common ground is based in compassion. I ask that you be understanding of others, whether or not they are affected by mental health issues and whether you’re aware or not. Just be good to others, whatever that entails, and certainly, absolutely, do not ever perpetuate the stigma around mental illness.