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Mental Illness is not a character flaw

Guest Author: Andrea

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

My story begins when I was about 6 years old.

This is the first time I have a memory of feeling “ anxiety.”
I had no idea what any of this meant.

Of course, at the time I had no idea that there was a word for it. I knew that my mother would say she had “ bad nerves” and I remember hearing phrases like “ nervous breakdown.” I had no idea what any of this meant.

My anxiety through my childhood and in my teen years became very intense. I was consumed with worries, stomach-aches and feelings of dread. I thought that this was just the way life was. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I actually found out what was happening to me was called GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and Social Anxiety. It took me a long time and several visits to the ER and cardiologists to accept that my panic attacks were not heart attacks. I remember on one occasion, I was so sure that I was dying that I asked my Mom to contact the minister to pray over me before I died!!

I felt …  Awful. Terrified. Embarrassed. Hopeless.

I was secretly in complete turmoil.

At the height of my Anxiety Disorder I was working in a busy hospital psychiatric inpatient unit. I was a Mental Health professional, there to help others who had mental health issues and I was secretly in complete turmoil.

My Anxiety Disorder was so severe that picking up the telephone in my office was absolute terror for me, attending team meetings, walking into the nurse’s station, seeing clients caused me to experience feelings of absolute terror and dread until eventually my severe anxiety lead to a major depression. On the outside I was professional, competent, outgoing and successful. I was surrounded by mental health professionals but no one had any idea of the agony I was experiencing inside. I struggled with intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. I started to loathe myself wanting more than anything to rid myself of what I considered to be a flaw that I could not conquer.

Since I  have both General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety as well as a history of Clinical Depression I could be perceived as stand-offish, lazy or unmotivated since I would often avoid certain things out of fear and dread. On the other hand there were times when I could be excessively talkative, especially when socially uncomfortable and then spend hours after a social encounter agonizing over what I may have said that was inappropriate or how people may have perceived me. I would ask questions over and over again to make sure that I understood exactly what was going to happen and to seek reassurance. I felt that I always had to be “on” and the pressure I would put on myself to be “on” was exhausting. At the end of a workday I would compare my mental exhaustion as the same feeling as having run a marathon. Mornings were the worst, I would cry in the shower wondering how I could possibly make it through another day.

 An important part of my own journey with Anxiety was learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Self-Compassion skills.  I actually started to embrace my Anxiety, accepted that this was a part of me and learned tools to work with it instead of fighting against it.

I stopped beating myself up, learned to be gentle with myself, changed my inner self-talk and learned how to rationalize my fearful thoughts.  I started getting in touch with the feeling of anxiety in my body. For me, I would feel it in my stomach. This became the cue for me to check in with my thoughts. The moment that I had that familiar feeling of being punched in the stomach I would ask myself, “Andrea, what are you saying to yourself right now.”

Even if I am judged when I speak … so what?

Sometimes the respond was the simple phrase “Oh no!” or “ What if.” I discovered that for me, “Oh no” was my automatic thought which meant “I’m afraid I’m going to judged.” I then learned to ask myself, “Is that thought helpful?” No it is not. Then I would look for the distortions in my thoughts. Do I have any evidence that I will be judged or am I jumping to conclusions by mind reading (believing that I know what others are thinking). Then I would ask myself: Even if I am judged when I speak … so what? This lead to further work on core beliefs which are developed during childhood, such as a fear of judgement and needing everyone to like me. So my aha moment was “Wow I thought I was just afraid of public speaking but there was a hidden emotion under that fear which was a belief that I needed to be liked by everyone to accept myself. I would have never dreamed that my biggest fear would one day become my greatest teacher. 

 I had to leave my job in the hospital setting as it was not condusive to my own well being. I spent a year taking several courses in anxiety and self compassion, working with a therapist on my own anxiety and depression too. I have even become Certified from the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists as an Anxiety Specialist! It is like a miracle to me that I am now seeing client’s every day in my own private practice as an Anxiety Specialist!  Having lived with Anxiety myself I am able to truly understand what my clients are feeling.

Mental Illness is not a character flaw

I tell my clients that it is so important to connect with a therapist who you feel good with.The stigma surrounding mental illness will only end when we realize that speaking out about it, is nothing to be ashamed of. It is SO important to me that people realize that Anxiety and other mental health issues can happen to ANYONE. Mental Illness is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness! The good news is that there is hope and I am proof that even the most severe cases of Anxiety can be managed.

One of the greatest things for me has been to finally reach the place of having compassion for, instead of feeling ashamed, loathing or embarrassed about having an Anxiety & Depression. Living with a Mental Health illness is like being on a continuum of acceptance and self-compassion. I am sick not weak!

I am SO very passionate about wanting to help youth and adults understand what ANXIETY is all about, to share with them what I have learned along the way and to give them the hope that they can feel better.

“I accept myself where I am and offer myself loving kindness and compassion along the way” – Andrea 

Comments

Dying inside
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This sounds so much like me through my younger life and nursing years . I was always so good at dressing up and showing up , no matter what. I was petrified inside and it kept me from advancing in my nursing career. I had the brains and the skills. But I guess some part of my brain wouldn’t let me. I ended up retiring far to early. I miss the job but I can’t fight against it anymore. It’s exhausting trying to be two different people. No one new but me. So thank you for this, it really resonated with me💝

Bernie
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All I can say is WOW!! Andrea, you and I have the same issues. I am still battling mine and the social anxiety is the hardest. Thank you for sharing your story. 💪

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