Are we all crazy, or is it just me?

My very real struggles with mental health

5/20/20245 min read

pug covered with blanket on bedspread
pug covered with blanket on bedspread

May is mental health awareness month, which is a topic near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. I have an MA and an MS in clinical psychology. Like so many in the field, I have had issues with my mental health. Both my parents and my son have had issues with mental health. My son says that it stops with him and likes to use it as one of the many reasons I will never have grandchildren.

There are so many ways I could approach this topic, that if I were going to go into all of them, this would be a tome, not a blog. Instead, here I will explain some of my struggles. I feel that it is important that we do this so that those in the same boat will know they are not alone. And that they are not wrong or broken as I first did. We do not need to sit in the dark when there is a group of millions of fun and weird people to share our lives and stories with.

As I try to post this, I am having trouble with worries about what others will think of me. I am only doing so because I feel so strongly that it is important to be open about all of this. If you are feeling brave, please share your experiences in the comments below.

My dad (who has always struggled with anxiety) said that he could tell that I was destined for the same from the time I was very young. He said that I would stress in ways that were not typical for someone my age.

I am not sure what he saw in me at such a young age, but I have learned that his observations were always spot-on. There are a few things I remember doing, that I could chalk up as quirky kid behavior, but were more likely quasi-OCD compulsions.

One such thing was that if I touched one finger, I would have to touch them all (I still do this). Another was that I would pretend I had something valuable in one hand and would have to transfer it to the other hand before I could open it.

I was even weird just when I was watching TV. I could only watch Mickey Mouse Club if I had my ears on. I would run out of the room every time they yelled “Hey you guuuuyyyys” at the beginning of Electric Company and then run back in to watch the show. This last one is more notable as I remember the visceral anxiety it caused.

Even as I got older, I would cry—a lot and over everything. My family would ask me what was wrong, and when I could not say anything, they would tell me to stop. They did this out of love because they knew I would get teased at school. This was what parenting was like in the 70s and 80s. But we know more now, and please do not do this to your kids. All emotions are real and beautiful.

I only saw my dad on Sundays, so I had this fear of being forgotten and left behind, so I would not leave the room, even to go to the bathroom if we were getting ready to leave. I felt this way with friends and boyfriends as I was older, and always wanted to be the one to drive places so that I could not be forgotten and left behind.

At the young age of eleven, I had my first of hundreds (maybe thousands) of panic attacks. I have written and published longer versions, but here’s the short version.

It happened when I was walking home from school (of course on an overcast February day). I heard a dog barking and saw that it was on a dog run behind a fence. I knew that it was no threat, but for some reason, the bark started to echo in my head. Then, the color washed out of the world around me. I could not keep walking home, but I could not turn back to the school. I felt paralyzed for what seemed like hours, but it was probably just minutes. I felt like I could not breathe. I was sure that something was wrong with me and that everyone around could see that I was breaking. Finally, when it was over, I continued my walk home and cried as soon as I unlocked the door.

I thought I was going crazy until I told my dad. He had panic attacks and explained to me what it was. This is why we cannot sit alone with this stuff. Future generations depend on us to explain it to them.

These panic attacks continued, sometimes several a day, into adulthood. My dad told me not to make sure I went back to whatever place I had one, so I would not become agoraphobic. This was hard, but I forced myself. I started gaining control over them during my college years when I realized what they were and that they were not dangerous. They continued to happen, but they were not as severe or as frequent.

In middle school, when I was old enough to notice and feel my lack of friends, I (as always) went to my dad. He explained that if one person had trouble with everyone, it was more likely about that one person than about all the others. Now, I think he was trying to speak to me about anxiety, but then I interpreted this as I was just shy and weird. So, I tried to change.

When I started high school, I made a conscious decision to push myself to talk to everyone and to join all the extracurriculars I could fit into my increasingly harrowing schedule. What I realize now is that I likely had some mild social anxiety. In trying to meet others, I was engaging in exposure therapy.

This leads to where I am now, somehow, having made it through my first half-century of life.

I stopped fearing the panic attack itself because I knew I was not going to die, even though I felt like it. And I was not going insane—well, anymore insane—even though it really, really like I was. I still have panic attacks, but a few times a year instead of a few times a day. And while they do suck in every way, I know what they are, and I try to ride them out and not dwell on them.

I still cry—a lot at times, but I have gotten some control over it. I feel incredibly depressed when it rains or is cloudy for a long time. I have had occasional thoughts about death—although I have never and would never act on it—throughout my life. Especially when the weather is dark for days or when I am physically unwell and feel like I am a burden to others. I say all these things to let you know that this is normal. This is real life, and if you feel this way, you are not alone.

I am no longer socially anxious except in especially large or loud crowds. But I still feel like I am still riding that pendulum of what is comfortable for me and what is too much. I am also learning how much of myself is comfortable for others and what is too much.

I have developed some coping skills. I write things like this as it helps me process my emotions and my crazies. When my office is not so messy that I can't access my art supplies, I even color, draw, and paint. I take medication; Prozac has been a lifesaver. I have dabbled in therapy. And while I believe in it with all my heart and have trained to be a therapist, I have never found it to be super effective for me. Still, I do keep it in my toolbox for when I need it. I still struggle with all of the same things I have had my entire life: the anxiety, the depression, the feeling weird in large social situations, but I understand it, and I face it, and I do ok.