It’s Bell Let’s Talk Day about mental illness, so I thought I’d share my experience with the dark side of the force.
I have agoraphobia. I think.
Toss in some general panic and anxiety too. I can’t say exactly what I have, because settling on a specific label is difficult. You may not fit all the criteria for a certain diagnosis and you may recognize other disorders within your symptoms. It’s kind of like finding out you’re a Capricorn but have some Sagittarius tendencies.
What is agoraphobia?
Years ago, it was considered a fear of wide open spaces. Actually, agora is the Greek word for marketplace. In other words, agoraphobia is a fear of the marketplace. A Greek marketplace would have been very busy and crowded.
I have a phobia of the marketplace. In the past, I’ve found it difficult to be in big stores. The bigger store, the more likely I would be to have a panic attack. Just thinking of places like Costco was terrifying (besides the $300 you dump on a small cart of ginormous stuff.)
The interesting thing is, I LOVE to shop and be in stores. So having my fight or flight response go wonky because I’m in a store makes no sense.
Thing is, agoraphobia is a panic disorder in which you fear places you cannot escape easily. Back to the marketplace: it’s a place where escape is difficult if not impossible.
For me, I get this overwhelming feeling I’m going to yak and I don’t want to yak in public. Thus, I must leave the store in case I yak.
You’d think that I could talk myself out of such a situation, but my body is soooo clever that my panic attacks imitate the feeling that I’m going to hurl. I don’t care how many degrees I have. I can’t tame that monster.
Since I was undiagnosed for over a decade and had to survive somehow, I found chewing gum or drinking water helped mask the sensation. To this day, you never see me without gum or water, especially in a car. Helps get rid of the lump in my throat.
I also get panic attacks in vehicles. I’m super comfortable in my own car, but I almost always refuse to drive with someone else. Buses and planes are also a bone of contention. Can’t escape those.
I’ve had this disorder since I was in Grade 7. It hasn’t always been bad; it comes in waves, likely depending on my stress level. Then again, my panic attacks happen for the most mundane reasons.
I’ve suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for about the same time. I’m not sure if the IBS caused the panic and agoraphobia or vice versa. Doesn’t really matter at this point. I suspect my fear of not finding a bathroom for the IBS is related to my fear of being in public places.
Regardless of how it happened or why it happened, it happened.
If you’re on the fence about mental illness, you may think I’m just crazy. Suck it up, buttercup, you might tell me.
Easy for you, I might retort. You wouldn’t tell that to someone with Type 1 diabetes.
My illness is inherited. I found out a family member has the same exact illness and some of the same exact coping strategies. For years, I thought I was just a weird freak of nature. Instead, I inherited a not-so-well-known condition that has caused havoc in my work life and school attendance, as well as my social life.
For over a decade, I didn’t live a life I wanted to live. I didn’t get to be me until my late twenties. That’s a lot of wasted time. I’m not saying the intervening years were horrible. I’m just saying it played it safe. And when you’re 20, you shouldn’t always play it safe.
I discovered my agoraphobia when I was in grad school. And only because it got worse before it got better.
When I was in high school I began taking an old anti-depressant for my irritable bowel syndrome. It masked the anxiety and agoraphobia enough for me to survive, go to school, and maintain a reasonably normal life.
However, once I had my IBS in control and was tired of the massive weight gain, I went off the medication.
It took about three months for the agoraphobia to rear its ugly head. I began having difficulty sitting in class (can’t escape) and going to the grocery store (must escape) and was especially freaked out being in any car, even a familiar one (where’s my escape?)
I did a fair amount of research on the internet before coming across anxiety disorders. At first I was convinced I had a mood disorder like depression or bi-polar (these are predominant in my family), but I identified more with the anxiety disorder class. (Makes sense because my mood is typically even except for regular life experiences.)
But random anxiety over nothing?
That I do very well.
No one knows how mental illness works. They have theories. And research these days is revealing various genes play a role in mental conditions. Of course, just because you have a genetic predisposition to mental disorders doesn’t mean you will experience one: evidence shows environment plays a role in whether you will develop one in your lifetime. And 1 in 5 people who read this column will experience mental illness at some point. That’s 20% of you. That’s a lot of peeps.
I have no doubt that mental illness is highly heritable, given my family’s background. I’m even more sure that I will pass it on to my future kids. But that’s okay. Crazy people like us are still awesome, valuable people. Boo to eugenics.
I believe mental illness is a lot like diabetes. If you maintain a balance, you can stay quite healthy. Eating well and exercising make a huge difference in how you feel. But if you aren’t careful about taking care of yourself, it can turn deadly, especially in the case of depression. (We just don’t get kidney disease the same way.)
I’m delighted to report that today, I’m doing super well. There are a range of therapies for mental disorders; I take an antidepressant that has amazing calming properties. I have almost no panic attacks, I sleep well, and even when life is super-stressful, I can handle the load.
The downside is that my anti-depressant has helped me gain 50 pounds. I say helped because I still eat. However, the old antidepressants (though calming) calm your body enough that your metabolism slows down as well.
I don’t do recreational drugs (and never will) and I rarely drink; I think these lifestyle decisions help me immensely too. Coffee, on the other hand, is essential to feeling awake! Yet if I drink more than two cups a day or turn to energy drinks, I get pretty jittery.
Drugs aren’t always a great solution, but for me, the right medication has helped. I don’t think I’ll ever go off it voluntarily unless it begins not working. The 50 pounds suck (big time) but I’d rather that extra weight than be in the house, afraid to go out and have a panic attack.
I’m hoping that in my lifetime, researchers will pinpoint the causes of mental illness, and find direct therapies for them. Right now it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Typically, when you show signs of mental illness, doctors try you on different drugs until one works well. I tried one new anti-depressant and nearly crawled out of my skin. I was positive I was bound for a straitjacket until I realized the drug was making me extremely agitated.
Once I started another drug, the one I’m on now, I felt the difference after two doses. This is extremely rare. I think I was just relieved to be off the evil one.
My condition will probably never go away. Maybe someday there will be a cure. There isn’t one now. I’m just super fortunate to have chosen a drug that works well for me. And I also take good care of myself.
Tom Cruise might diss drugs that work on your brain, but I am (almost) normal because of them. Or least I’m back to what my normal is.
For the first time in a decade, I can go in to a big crowded mall and don’t think once about getting sick. It doesn’t even cross my mind; the anti-obsessive properties of my medicine keep that thought from appearing. That oh my gosh I think I’m going to be sick oh crap where am I going to go oh my gosh I really don’t feel so good I gotta get outta here feeling.
I get to experience all the things people take for granted. Shopping. Concerts. Eating in a restaurant. Ever try to eat when you think you’re going to hurl? Difficult!
And travelling. I can’t wait until I have enough money to begin travelling wherever I want to go. Years ago, I never would have dreamed of such a thing. I feel free.
I’m also training to be a teacher. I’m not sure how the classroom setting will work, but I do know that I’ve been having great success not having panic attacks in school. It means I don’t have to settle for a job because it keeps me hidden in a corner somewhere.
Unfortunately, people today still don’t understand mental illness. I have become very open about having one because I think the worst thing people can do is hide in the shadows when there’s so many of us out there in the club.
If you don’t feel like yourself, or haven’t felt what it’s like to be yourself in a long time, do a little research online and see a professional. I recommend asking to see a psychiatrist (a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry) because I believe mental illness has a strong biological basis. I’m not saying therapy from therapists and psychologists doesn’t work, but I myself feel most comfortable with a medical doctor who has an extensive background in treating people like me.
Today is Let’s Talk Day, so if you have any questions about being crazy or feeling crazy or knowing someone who’s crazy, start a conversation.
Oh yeah, and by the way, most of us ain’t really crazy.