Out of the Shadows

Let's Talk About Anxiety and Depression
by Rebecca Richardson

The recent passing of Robin Williams has brought the topic of mental illness into the forefront of the societal conversation. For days after his death, newscasters, psychiatrists, colleagues and friends all speculated as to the “why”. Why would someone with seemingly everything going for him commit such an act? Why would he simply choose to leave his loved ones and life behind? The reality is no one can or ever will know why. The question can be asked a thousand different ways but only he knew what lay inside the depths of his mind. Only he knew the answer and he took it with him. 

Anytime someone of notoriety passes tragically the world takes notice. Living inside a fish bowl, your life is on display and death from addiction or suicide is something that gets the masses talking. If there is ever to be a silver lining in the passing of someone, it is that these types of tragic deaths, bring awareness to topics often kept in the shadows. Depression and anxiety are the two most common types of mental illness experienced by adults in the U.S. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health; “In 2012, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This represented 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults.”and  “Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects about 6.8 million American adults, including twice as many women as men. The disorder develops gradually and can begin at any point in the life cycle, although the years of highest risk are between childhood and middle age.”2

I am someone who has been diagnosed with both PTSD and an anxiety disorder. I've had it for years. One of my primary triggers for my anxiety is bad weather. While I am able to be fine inside my home, leaving the house in the rain or snow isn't just challenging, there are times when it completely limits my ability to function outside of my home. 

To give you an idea, picture a typical MidWest rain storm. It's coming down in buckets and in an hour, I have somewhere to be. I am dressed and ready to go, then I look out my window. Here is a typical scenario that runs through my head: “The rain is coming down hard, the person in front of me is going to slam on their brakes. When I slam on mine, my car will hydroplane, if it hydroplanes I'm going to hit them, if I hit them, I'll spin out, if I spin out, I'll hit the embankment, if I hit the embankment, I'm going to flip, if the car flips my engine is going to catch on fire, my seat belt is going to stick and because I'm upside down I won't be able to reach, the engine is going to explode and I'm going to die in a fiery crash...” In the 30 seconds or so that this horrible scenario is going through my head, my heart is beginning to race, my hands are getting sweaty, involuntarily I am already picking up the phone, thinking of what excuse I can use to cancel my appointment and stay home instead. 

Now I'm not proud to share those thoughts with you. To most they must seem crazy, irrational. Believe me when I tell you that the rational side of my brain knows all of this. The irrational side of me though, is loud and horribly obnoxious. I feel this intense fear, the absolutely certainty that those thoughts aren't just thoughts, they are premonitions and the only way to avoid it, is to stay home. I am a straight A student in college, I am a mother, a wife, a grandmother. I am in my late thirties and old enough and smart enough not be afraid of something as simple as the rain that used to frighten me as a child. Yet....when the anxiety takes hold, when the panic sets in; all of that goes away and I'm reduced to being a prisoner of my thoughts. Sometimes, when I'm lucky, I get angry enough with myself that I can get in the car. I can get the ignition on, the radio blasting and get on my way before I can allow myself to really get going. Other times; I'm stuck, a deer in headlights, paralyzed by thoughts that I know are completely wrong. They are a tape stuck on repeat going through my head over and over till I believe it and end up staying inside. 

The anxiety is bad, the panic attacks are worse. It is like being trapped under an anvil unable to breathe. Like someone has taken your heart and put in on fast forward, it's beating so fast your afraid you will be like a cartoon character and it will just beat out of your chest. Your hands sweat, your legs shake; you feel like breathing is an effort and when you do, your just a breathe away from hyperventilating. 

I'll never forget the time I had an allergic reaction to a medication. It was 11 at night and I was having trouble sleeping. I took an OTC sleeping medication and within 30 minutes my tongue began to tingle then swell. I flipped. Suddenly I couldn't breathe (now mind you I could talk so I could breathe but in my mind I was dying). I convinced myself I must be having a stroke. My tongue was thick, my face felt numb, my arm went numb....by the time my husband rushed me to the hospital, I was so worked up he had to physically carry me inside. I actually said my goodbyes that night, convinced, absolutely convinced I was going to die. An Ativan under my tongue (a special medicine used for anxiety) and heavy dose of steroid to counteract my allergic reaction and I was back to normal. In that moment, however, in the time; every part of my mind and body told me what I felt was real, that this was the end. 

So why share this? Why talk so openly about something that obviously paints me in a rather neurotic light? Because I believe I'm not alone, no, scratch that, I know I'm not alone. As you saw with the numbers I quoted above, I'm one of thousands who deals with anxiety. Mind you mine is probably more on the severe side. Not everyone who suffers from anxiety has panic attacks or the physical symptoms I've described. I'm quite proud to say that it has been several years since my last full blown panic attack. Medication and treatment have gone a long way but I will discuss that a little more in a bit. 

When I was younger I also dealt with depression. So much so that at one point I contemplated suicide.  I was in my early twenties with my entire life in front of me. Yet there I sat in a bathroom with a bottle of pills and razor. Even though my children where in the room down the hall, my pain in that moment, felt so strong and I felt so incredibly alone. II wanted peace. I wanted to just stop being in pain. I can't tell you what stopped me that day. I truthfully don't know. I only know that something inside me woke up. Something inside me decided that fighting was better than giving up. I stood up that day and looked in the mirror. Looked at the eyes of girl I really didn't know. The eyes of stranger whose mask had grown to heavy to wear anymore. I was tired of wearing the mask. Tired of hiding how I felt all the time behind a fake smile and an “I'm fine” when I wasn't fine at all. 

I can't tell you that I went to counseling and magically became whole. Here I am over a decade later and my anxiety and sometimes depression are still things I fight. I think perhaps they will always be there. The difference is today I have tools. Before, it was like I was a carpenter with no hammer, no nails, or a musician with no instrument. I could not see my value, or my worth. I could only see my pain and it was like this heavy veil that covered my eyes and clouded everything I saw. 

Going into therapy, learning techniques to help me, getting on medication; they became the missing pieces that helped connect the puzzle that is me, helped me become more complete. Now I use my breathing techniques, I take my medication and meditate. I write, every single day. For me that is my outlet. For others it may be singing, or painting. For some it is exercise or cooking. It's about learning your passions and finding ways to recenter yourself in the present instead of getting lost in your sadness or fear. I have found healing through sharing my life, my story. Each person who deals with issues like this will find their own form of therapy, their own way of expressing their pain in a positive way that helps to keep them grounded in the present, in the good they have in their life. 

You do not have to live in shame. You do not have to live in fear. As human beings our very natures ebb and flow with our emotions. For some of us, our emotions can become too much and when that happens, there is no shame is seeking help. There is support.

Let's take a look at some of the symptoms associated with both of these conditions. According to NIH (National Institute of Health): 

Depression is defined as a persistent or recurring feeling of sadness or emptiness that does not go away within a few days from the onset of symptoms. While most people will experience sadness in their lifetime, those with depression can feel prolonged and exaggerated feelings such as:

Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings

Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism

Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness

Irritability, restlessness

Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

Fatigue and decreased energy

Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions

Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

Overeating, or appetite loss

Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

A person with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) have worries that do not seem to go away. Their constant worry leads to a disruption of daily life. Someone with an anxiety disorder may experience persistent and long term symptoms such as:

Inability to get rid of concerns or worries

Anxiety is heightened, usually to an extreme

Can't relax, always on a heightened state of alert

Difficulty concentrating

Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, mind is always going over their worries

Constant fatigue

Headaches

Muscle aches and tightness

Trembling 

Twitching

Feeling panicky more often than not

Hot flashes

GAD develops slowly, usually starting in the teens and is escalated by stress. Some with GAD also experience somatic disorder wherein their emotional worries become physical symptoms. 

If as you read this you felt “Hey that's me”, then start today, find help. You don't have to live in pain or fear. You don't have to spend your life feeling like your the “only one”. Here are some places you can start. Visit these websites, do some reading, so if the “shoe fits” so to speak. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!!! Eleanor Roosevelt said: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” It is ok to ask someone else for the match when yours run out. 

To learn more about Mental Health Issues and to find resources in your area, please visit any of these fabulous websites:

National Institute for Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Psychology Today (Find a Therapist Page)

If you or someone you know if having feelings of harming yourself (themselves) 

please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 24/7/365. 

A trained counselor is available day or night to speak with you.

1www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/index.shtml#pub8
2www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad/index.shtml#part3