Regan: My Experience with Mental Illness

Mental illness does not resolve itself.

by Joseph Regan | 5/17/19 2:05am

My experience with anxiety and depression is like the cinders that drift slowly down through the dark after a fireworks display. Where there had been light, noise, excitement and people, there is darkness, silence, sadness and loneliness. I felt it the worst during my senior fall. 

This column’s purpose is to address mental illness by talking about my experience of hitting my lowest point in a way that allowed me to bounce rather than crash. The reason I am writing this column is because I almost crashed, and I hope to help other people experiencing the lonely terror of “almost” crashing or help them get back on their feet afterward.

Anxiety and depression are illnesses. Such a simple fact, and yet it took me 21 years to accept it. I think we often mistake sadness for mental illness. But sadness is a part of life. Anxiety and depression are not. Or, at least, they should not be, but they are a part of my life. Anxiety and depression can make you sad, but they are not just more powerful negative feelings. Anxiety and depression gnaw away at your ability to regulate feelings. My senior fall, I had come to define happiness as the absence of sadness. Right around the point when I realized I had given up on happiness as attainable without suppressing its opposite was when I realized I needed to get help. And I did.

Some things cannot be beaten alone, and mental illness is one of them. Something in me always felt empty, and for the longest time, I had considered myself the problem and gotten nowhere. The first step toward real healing was admitting that I had a problem, rather than thinking that I myself was a problem. The second step was going to get a diagnosis. The third and ongoing step is consistent self-honesty. When you go to get help, you receive sheets of paper that ask you questions: “How often do you feel like getting through the day is impossible?” I answered “Every day” because it was the honest answer. It hurt to see what I already knew because seeing it somehow made it more real, but it also validated my struggle as legitimate. Now that I had a diagnosis, I knew what I was up against. Looking back, it was like I had been knocked down for a while, and now I was getting back up to continue the fight.

The hardest thing with mental illness is the hardest thing with anything important: You have to keep going if you want to go anywhere with it. The second-hardest thing is realizing how long you went without getting help and how many relationships you damaged or destroyed by maintaining a poisonous relationship with yourself. People inflict pain when they are in pain. Maybe that is not true for you, and you may believe I am wrong, but that was definitely true for me. My pain was that I could not escape from depression and anxiety no matter what I put into myself or what situations I put myself in. I believe that James Joyce said it best when he wrote, “Think you are escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” If you think you need to escape from yourself and your state of mind, you need help to to change. Change is growth.

The reality is that I cannot defeat anxiety and depression, but I can strengthen myself. So, I make my bed every morning. I no longer spend time with and give attention to people who do not matter to me. I let myself feel what I feel and no longer suppress the feelings I would rather not have. I define my value based upon self-esteem rather than achievement and the attention of other people. I sometimes fail to do these things. My struggle has taught me that failure does not mean success is not an option. A made bed does not solve anything, but the reason why does. Why I make my bed or do the other things is because anxiety and depression prey upon and encourage a lack of self-worth. I make my bed because I have self-worth. I care for myself by reminding myself what I care about with actions that reflect those values. And I do my best to be consistent. My struggle is mine, but it does not mean I fight alone, and it does not mean that I fight in the only way one can. Instead, this is my simple story of healing. It is an ongoing story.