Mental Illness and Me by Shann Smith
For the longest time I did not have a concept of what mental illness was. Everything I experienced had been chalked up to being a teenager and being stressed out about school. My issues were temporary and unimportant. It wasn’t until I had my first panic attack in my sophomore year of high school that anyone ever had a sseriously discussed mental illness with me. I remember sitting in the nurse’s office, and we talked about seeing a neurologist – because at this point, whatever I had affected my motor skills and gave me a slight tick – which I still have to this day. She was sweet, and she spoke to me about all of these different options. This was the first times I heard the phrase “generalized anxiety disorder,” ever used in regards to me. And it would be the only time I’d hear it for a long time.
Nothing ever came of the meeting. I went home and talked to my parents, and they told me that I just needed to relax. I went to one appointment with a local neurologist and was told that I should get an MRI. I never got the MRI. To my parents, I was just stressed – and stress is normal. I just needed to stop worrying so much. After all, if the neurologist couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me, then why go back?
It bothered me, because I couldn’t articulate to them that relaxation was such a chore for me. I worried about everything and most of the time I knew that I wasn’t being rational. But, that didn’t matter – it became very clear that I was on my own and I needed to find other ways to cope. So, that night, I spent hours googling different things I could do to help – mostly to no avail, because I had moved past the point of counting and breathing exercises. That night, after I turned off my computer and went
to bed – I laid in there until the wee hours of the morning thinking about what I could do – what could I possibly do to quell these fears that I had? I got my answer sooner than I thought.
My high school had a small, but passionate theater program that I’d been part of since my freshman year. I played mostly major parts – and I was able to completely lose myself in every role I played. The world that I inhabited on stage wasn’t the world that I had to live in. The character I played wasn’t me, so they didn’t have the same issues that I did. In retrospect, I know that sounds too goo to be true – and it was – but it was a way for me to cope so I ran with it. I put my entire being into this drama program. The experience liberated me in so many ways – but alas, it didn’t cure me. Eventually, the fear would creep back in and I would always go back to square one.
Years went by. I moved once. I still did theater, and in 2014, I began an acting program in New York City. Still, I had done nothing really to help my anxiety. And as my first semester progressed acting stopped being a coping method. Why? Because now it was a career. A career that came with a huge amount of fears: Do my acting friends like me? Will directors like me? Will I find a job? What if I never find a job? Can I act in front of camera? What is happening? I remember my first semester included nightly calls to my mom about how stressed I was, and how tired I was from the stress. She said I should go home, and that just made everything worse, because then I started thinking, “Oh God, what if they decide to move me back home?”
It all came to a head one night about half way through the semester. I freaked out in my room, and did my best to contain myself. I called my mom, and I told her everything I had been feeling. At one point, I even confessed to her that I didn’t remember the last time I wasn’t stressed. I told her that I needed something more than
just encouragements and assurances that I was over thinking things. My life felt like it was falling apart – and even if it wasn’t.
I think what scared me more than anything at the time was that I had lost my major coping mechanism. I felt like I was floating along this endless sea of worry, and my one life line got yanked from under me. I felt like I was drowning.
Finally, my parents offered to get me therapy. And after a month of getting everything together, I went to my first appointment. I laugh about it, but the whole thing was quite an experience. As soon as I sat down in our small room, I immediately started venting about every single worry I’ve had since I was thirteen years old. I told this woman so much that there were times when I couldn’t even process what I was saying – I just vomited it out. By the end of the session, I was crying, but there was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. Someone had listened to me.
I left that day feeling cured – I felt relaxed and my mind wasn’t going everywhere. Of course, I knew that wasn’t the case. No matter how much I wanted to believe it, therapy was not a cure for my anxiety. Nothing could cure my anxiety – I could only learn to live with it.
At times, the idea of this frustrates me to no end. I see people who are able to walk through life and just enjoy all of it – and I get so mad. No matter what I do, there will always be moments where I freak out – or times when I am so stressed that I can’t even move, but this is part of my life. And I can either decide to let it consume me, or I can fight against it.
And, after spending years letting it consume me, I finally feel strong enough to fight.
You can find Shann on twitter @shanndsmith