Have you ever run on sand — soft, dry sand that falls away beneath your feet? Well, that’s what living with mental illness is like. While everyone else sprints along the concrete beside you, you stumble and twist your ankles and fall gradually behind.
No, let me correct myself: living with mental illness is like running uphill on sand.
No, wait. It’s like running waist-deep in water with muck under your feet. It’s like swimming through molasses.
It’s like drowning.
I’m proud to say that I’ve finally hit the concrete and started running with everyone else. It hasn’t been easy, and it’s taken a long time. If you’ve read any of my previous posts on mental illness, you’ll already know that I became aware of my mental illness, or at least that something unusual was going on inside of me, just before turning seventeen. I didn’t seek help until I was eighteen — I didn’t know help was a plausible option! — and the services I received were limited and ill-fit. The medication in particular was a heavy disappointment. My family doctor gave me mood stabilizers which I didn’t feel were doing anything and which I found out later weren’t doing anything; my doctor had put me on such a low dosage that the drug was meant for a placebo effect and nothing more.
Perhaps this deception contributed to my growing distrust in psychiatric treatment, perhaps not. By the time I sought help again I was nearly twenty-one years old, and I was consciously forcing myself to be optimistic about the mental health treatment I was being offered by my city (read my post, The Harm of Hope: A Personal Overview of Selected Mental Health Services in London, Ontario, for a full recap of that ordeal). After a general practitioner prescribed me some intense anti-psychotics and I eventually wound up in the hospital, I swore off medication for good. I never wanted my mind and body manipulated like that ever again, I never wanted the debilitating side effects that came with medication, and I never wanted to put my trust in a doctor who hardly knew me and a pill smaller than the tip of my pinkie finger which could ruin my life.
Then I got an email telling me I had finally been set up with a psychiatrist and my first appointment was advancing quickly (mind you, it had taken a full five months to receive this email). I awaited the appointment eagerly, but not too eagerly: I had learned through experience to approach medical professionals with caution and without too much hope.
During that first appointment my psychiatrist listened carefully to my story. He decided that I should try a different kind of anti-psychotic, and added subtly that perhaps I was focused too much on my writing and should begin thinking of alternative, more practical careers. He also set me up for a blood test and ECG, and sent me home with a mood chart to fill out and the suggestion that we practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. These last additions of his were the only reason I went back for my next appointment, and the one after that, and the one after that.
Please keep in mind that I did not start taking anti-psychotics. I knew that class of medication did not mesh well with my body, and I was also fully aware of my power to say NO. My past experiences had taught me that my knowledge of my mind and body was more valid and accurate than even a doctor’s opinion.
But, at the same time, my mood was worsening and I was growing desperate. The CBT was helping, but it wasn’t enough. When my psychiatrist suggested I try an antidepressant called Sertraline, I decided to take a chance. I had researched previously that antidepressants had the least severe side effects of all mental illness medications, and I knew more than a few friends who had taken them without too much complication.
I began Sertraline. In two weeks I had more energy and found it easier to get through my days. In three weeks my depressive thoughts were all but gone. The only side effects I experienced were a constant, tiresome headache and a little bit of nausea, both of which disappeared after the first week and a half.
So I’m running. The concrete feels warm and solid under my feet. I’ve had one scary hyperactive day and three down days, but on average my normal has become, well, normal. I never knew that real help was available, that something could actually work, and that I could get better. I hoped, but I never entirely believed. Now I know. My war on medication is over. Now I can feel my strength returning, my limbs pushing against the pavement. My journey through the sand and the muck and under the water has left me exhausted, but it has also left me toned and powerful. My mental illness taught me how to take care of myself, how to trust and criticize, how to manage my time wisely, and how to surpass the largest obstacle of all: myself. I have been left the better because of it.
The only problem is, as I’m running along the concrete (full speed now, bent and smiling), I keep glimpsing people beside me on the sand. Some have just started tripping; they look confused and keep cursing their feet. Some are going uphill; they move more slowly and breathe through their noses. Some are wading through the muck and water. Some are swimming, some are drowning, some are floating far away face down into the waves.
Because I can see them now — those people struggling in the sand — I don’t run as quickly as I used to. Most days I jog, sometimes I walk, and sometimes I stop completely. I want them to know it’s not a race; I want to help pull them back onto the pavement. And if I can’t help them back, if they’re too far for me to reach, I want them to see that someone is walking with them. I want them to know I remember what it feels like to drown.