As I tell you my story with mental illness, I want you to be hyper-aware of two important points. 1) My story is not uncommon. The struggles and pain I have felt do not make me unique. 2) I was the best case scenario in terms of my support system and my ability to afford professional help and medication…and I barely made it.
I wrote this late one night and it’s the closest I’ve come to describe what it feels like to be stuck in a spiraling depression.
“It’s like I’ve fallen into an old well. I claw my way up, fingers bleeding from clutching the ancient, mossy stones. Sometimes, I fight my way high enough to almost make out some light, but I always eventually slam back into the sulfuric water. I blink into the abyss, fingers pulsing from pain, and think, ‘I can’t do this again. There’s no way.’ “
When my functional depression spiraled into a debilitating depression, my life became truly precarious. One morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. This was at a time where I was in a healthy, long-term relationship, had supportive friends and family nearby, and was leading my, at the time, eighteen-month-old scrappy startup. I had plenty of reasons to be grateful. And yet, I couldn’t find a single reason why I should get out of bed.
Every night was hell. It would take me hours to fall into a light, broken sleep. My body and mind were exhausted, but all I could do was spiral with horrible thoughts. I built my idea of self out of those late night spirals. When I would finally fall asleep, I would wake up after an hour or two in an absolute panic and the spiral would start again. If I was lucky, I could get another hour of sleep. This was my normal.
Depression is one term that encompasses many insidious faces, including a lot of physical symptoms. Here is a small window into what my life became:
I was nauseous, sometimes to the point of vomiting, nearly every day. I went through a twenty-two day streak of nausea, vomiting seven of those days. The growing anxiety led to constant pain in my neck and shoulders, which led to me booking weekly massages to try for some relief. Within the first few sessions, the massage therapist inquired if I had been in a car accident. I also lost an abrupt amount of weight, to the point my fifty-calorie vitamin was a substantial part of my diet.
And let’s not forget about the panic attacks. They would last nearly an hour and I would legitimately think I was dying. My hands and face would go numb. My hands would clench up where I couldn’t move them. I would lie on the ground, rocking back and forth, tears and snot streaming down my face, struggling to breathe. One time, my husband and sister-in-law were on the ground with me when my lips went numb. I couldn’t speak clearly and they had a hard time understanding what I was trying to say. That’s when I legitimately believed I was having a stroke.
It’s challenging to fully articulate how truly crippling suffering from depression can be. It often felt like my body and mind were betraying me. I couldn’t trust what I was feeling or my interpretation of events. And, on top of everything, there is such a stigma regarding mental health illness. I fought for so long against admitting I had depression which only delayed my healing and recovery.
When I finally got beat down enough to admit my mental health problems, that was only the start of another long, arduous journey. When you accidentally put your hand on a heated stove, your instinct is to pull away. Now imagine you were told to keep your hand there because eventually the stove will cool. You’re told the pain is temporary, but it’s hard to believe that when your blood is boiling. That’s what it’s like to take the first steps in recovery.
The unfortunate reality is that healing and getting to a point of stability take time, when time feels like the last thing you can give. There are no quick fixes. Therapy can take several months to a year before you start to feel better and, during that time, things get worse when they were already unbearable. Medications for mental illness are highly dependent on the individual’s situation and biology, so some trial and error is extremely common. And again, during this time, your life may get even more rocky before things improve. To reiterate: you must give time when that is the last thing you can give.
Imagine if I didn’t have the resources and help that I needed. What if I hadn’t had a standing relationship with a trusted therapist? What if I couldn’t find a psychiatrist who was accepting new patients? What if I didn’t have amazing health insurance, making appointments and medication affordable? What if I wasn’t able to take six weeks off of work and then return part-time from home? What if I didn’t have friends who stepped in when I couldn’t be alone. What if I didn’t live with a supportive partner? I barely survived with everything else lining up.
Remember how I said my story wasn’t unique? Maybe it is. The truth is I had a privileged mental health care crisis because my access to help and the support system around me was truly the best case scenario.
I write this from a place of stability…and that seems like a miracle. Thanks to the immense help from the professionals around me, I have discovered the right medication and have my therapist’s number saved in my phone. I have not “made it” nor am I completely healed. It’s not a linear process with an end. The reality is I will always struggle with my mental health. I will need access to quality mental health professionals my entire life. And that’s okay. I’ve learned to treat myself with grace and compassion to accept all parts of me by giving myself permission to hurt without judgement.
Before I got the help I needed, my life was unbelievably painful. My heart absolutely breaks for those in our community who lack the access I had and are suffering needlessly. They are not able to see mental health care professionals, take the time off of work, or afford the treatment.
I proudly joined the Board of Counseling and Recovery Services of Oklahoma (CRSOK) because, at its core, CRSOK is passionate about helping those who need help. We simply must all prioritize increasing long-term mental healthcare access to every single person in our community. Donating to CRSOK isn’t just putting money into a bottomless pit where you never see an impact; it is providing support to someone, just like me, so they can escape that pit themselves. Your donation provides a supportive hand to those stuck in the well.
Robin Berkstresser Walters