Mar 29, 2016
This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
My name is Cheryl and I’m engaged in a potentially life-long battle with mental illness. There it is, laid bare for all to read.
It’s taken many years, but today I’m able to say those words, share my story and talk about an illness that has been kept “hush hush” for far too long. I’m guessing there are still folks out there who will cringe when they read that first sentence.
“Wow, she just said she was mentally ill.” “Why would she do such a thing?” “Doesn’t she care what people think?” “What will people say?”
Talking about mental illness has always been taboo. There is a shameful stigma that surrounds this sickness, keeping people from seeking help. I lived behind that stigma for years, but now, I talk.
I was diagnosed with depression 11 years ago. I was a young stay-at-home mom, caring for my two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. I use the term “diagnosed” loosely, because for the first two years of my illness, doctors couldn’t really pinpoint what was wrong. I was exhausted all the time. I could spend hours sleeping and still be bone tired. I was angry, irritable and had no patience; a fine combination for spending hours on end, alone, with a toddler and a preschooler. I was also very sad-inexplicably sad.
I remember very clearly the day I completely unraveled
Normally, I was an upbeat, outgoing and fun-loving person. I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful children and friends and family who loved me. There was no reason for me to feel so lost, alone and afraid. I remember very clearly the day I completely unraveled. It was Christmastime, a time of year I usually loved. This particular year, however, I was miserable. Everything about Christmas completely stressed me out, and I couldn’t find joy, no matter how hard I tried.
I remember sitting on my kitchen floor, late for yet another caroling gig with the band, a pair of ruined pantyhose in one hand, and a half dressed toddler next to me. The tears started and refused to stop. I cried for hours. When I tried to understand why I was so sad, I would cry even harder because there was no concrete reason and that really scared me. That night, I realized something was seriously wrong, and I needed to find help.
Early in my illness, I was treated for depression and prescribed anti-depressants. I hoped with the medication, life would return to normal, and I would start to feel like myself again. I didn’t realize it at the time but the normal I had once known, was now gone forever. Anxiety, in addition to depression, crept into my life and simple everyday tasks such as answering the telephone, going to the grocery store and taking the kids to the park, would terrify me.
None of this made sense to me because normally, I was an outgoing person who loved meeting new people and interacting with the outside world. The more anxious I got, the more depressed I became. Keeping up with my young children, maintaining a household and even keeping a job became too much for me. I felt like a complete failure as a mother, a wife and a human being. Once again, I found myself in tears at my doctor’s office, looking for answers and for help.
I have been prescribed more medication than I can even count
I’d like to say a diagnosis came quickly and with it the correct medication. Unfortunately, diagnosing and treating mental illness is never a quick and easy task. In the course of my 11- year struggle, I have been told I suffer from depression, anxiety and seasonal affective disorder. One doctor said I was bipolar while yet another doctor said I was just severely depressed. I have been prescribed more medication than I can even count and have seen too many doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers and crisis workers. With each visit to the doctor and each new prescription came the hope that I would get better; the hope that I would be able to shake off the cloud of sadness and fear and eventually find myself again.
My darkest moment came about five years ago, when a reaction to yet another new medication sent my mind to a very dark place. I was on the verge of leaving yet another job because my anxious and depressed mind had convinced me I was no good and a failure. My husband was feeling the stress of having to be the sole provider, yet again, and I was sure he had reached the end of his rope with me. I had dropped my kids off with the sitter, and was driving alone, on a road with a canal nearby. For a brief moment, I turned the steering wheel toward the water.
The only explanation I have for not ending up in that canal is God’s hand, correcting my van and turning me back toward the road. I spent five days in the hospital afterwards, two of them in psychiatric intensive care, where I was watched 24-hours a day to ensure my safety. During one of those nights, I remember lying in a hospital bed, looking up at my reflection in a safety mirror, with tears streaming down my face. In the midst of my fear and in my darkest moment, a song that I had sung with the church worship team on so many Sundays came to my mind.