I am standing in the bathroom of a Fortune 500 company hyperventilating, my body buzzing like I’d just downed ten Redbulls, my brain threatening to shut down in preparation for a full blown panic attack. I have no idea how I’m going to get myself out of here in shape enough to teach a presentation skills class to 15 salespeople (all male as it happens) who may be a bit antagonistic toward me I’ve been forewarned, as they see their required attendance in my class as an affront. A big ego blow when speaking is your primary career currency!
The audience was not new to me. I’d successfully handled at least 80 such groups (the uber unreceptive variety) over the previous ten years, and yet, before every such class I felt like my insides were being electrocuted. So what did I do? What I always did: Told myself that every time I walked into that room to teach in spite of my panic, I was winning a huge battle. I was proving wrong, every person who ever doubted me, not the least of whom was myself. The need to prevail in spite of my malfunctioning (parasympathetic) nervous system gave me a charge that propelled me through every class.
Panic disorder is considered a mental illness, but thinking of it as ‘mental’ gives us a faulty picture of what’s actually going on. Panic is as much a physiological condition as it is a psychological one; potential sources being anything from genetic predisposition, an abnormality in the brain, a symptom of PTSD, nutritional deficiencies, chronic stress, a result of substance abuse, or any combination of these or other factors.
Which is to say that the term mental illness is a tricky one. It can mean anything from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and is inclusive of all degrees of severity—from a chronic malaise to outright debilitation. Without fail however, it conjures the image of someone who can’t hold it together, is ever at risk of losing control, potentially dangerous at worst, simply unreliable at best, but ultimately someone you don’t want in your life. However much valuable information has been made available to us, the stigma remains, and it ain’t pretty!
But here’s the reality: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 1 in 5 adults experiences some form of mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 5 youth (13-18) will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their young years. In fact, mental health issues are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for people 18–44. It’s likely then that either we ourselves fall into this category and/or know a good many people who do. Yes, roughly 44 million people in this country go to work, care for their children, build relationships, and navigate daily life while trying to manage the effects of a malfunctioning brain. And chances are, we have no idea who these people are. To hear from some celebs who’ve chosen to share their stories check out: http://aplus.com/a/15-celebrities-standing-up-mental-illness-stigma
I myself have struggled with varying degrees of depression, anxiety and panic disorder throughout my life. I have ridden emotional rollercoasters so intense I was sure they’d do me in. And yet few people know this about me. I didn’t grow up at a time when people talked about these things openly; in fact, any indication that you weren’t 100% upstairs was sure to elicit some pretty negative—and often detrimental reactions. The going theory–as I understood it–was simple: you were either crazy or sane. Sane meant you were in control of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior; crazy meant you weren’t (and thus belonged in a mental institution). Period. As explained to me by various people without a clue: depression came from a weak will; anxiety from sheer wimpyness; and panic from some combination hypersensitivity and hysteria. So, the message was clear: my suffering was due not to (what we now know is) faulty wiring in my brain, but to significant character defects. The solution? Buck up and keep my suffering to myself.
So, out of what I perceived as absolute necessity, I became a darn good actress. And though it took many years, and near constant work, I eventually learned to portray ‘okayness’ with the veracity of Meryl Streep (if I do say so myself), and with rare-ish exception, have lived in the world as a fully functioning, often, darn productive member of society. Now, this is not to say that there were no cracks in the wall (perceptible to those to those in close proximity), or that I was within even 1000 miles of where I wanted to be. I wasn’t. But I believe that while my ‘fake it til you make it’ approach may not have helped me to thrive, it sure as hell helped me to survive—and to build some solid skills for future ‘thriving’ in the process.
Now I want to make a distinction here between making a conscious choice to ‘show up’ in the world as a healthyish, functioning person (even when you feel like anything but), and repressing, ignoring, or making light of your psychological state—the latter of which is proven to backfire. Now here’s the surprising, and very promising thing: My constant push to ‘seem’ okay, quite literally helped me to ‘be’ okay—at the neurological level. Little did I know at the time that my thespian pursuits were having a very real impact on the inner workings of my noggin, because, as it happens, every time we learn something new or do something differently, we are altering our neural circuitry—ie. rewiring out brain. So, although I had no conscious awareness of it, by consistently setting out to, and then successfully engaging in, healthy, constructive behaviors (however false they felt), I was building and strengthening new neural circuits that would eventually become a permanent, ever accessible part of my mental material. Check this out for a super clear explanation of this delightful phenomenon: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11762/5-ways-to-rewire-your-brain-for-meaningful-life-changes.html
I’ve shared this all of this with few people in my life. I was sure that if I did, I would shame my family, be disqualified as a professional, and generally alienate anyone I hoped to impress. I have feared looking weak, incompetent, and undesirable. And yet the truth is, at this point in my life, I feel none of these things. I am not ashamed of myself. I actually feel proud of what I’ve continued to face and overcome. I am reassured by the capacity for resilience I have demonstrated at times when I was sure I would collapse.
Which is why I’ve chosen to share this now—in a public-ish way. After so many years of desperately wanting to scream from the rooftops—“I am suffering like crazy but not giving up!”, “Do you get how hard this is?!”, Please acknowledge and validate!”, I’ve finally realized that I need to give myself that long-coveted public stamp of approval. Because, even if someone (or many some ones) else really got that I’ve had to work the equivalent of three jobs round the clock for three decades, to get my brain to do what it was designed to do (work with, not against me!), their acknowledgment could never replace the far more powerful, healing effect of my own appreciation.
Yes, I need my own appreciation, and really, gratitude, for powering through panic attacks to teach public speaking classes year after year; for showing up for friends and loved ones in spite of an all consuming anxiety, for writing four books, running a business, and having a child on my own while battling severe insomnia and depression. For choosing every day of my life to find new ways of improving myself, and my situation. For never giving up, much as I have wanted to at times. This is also meant as a shout-out to the millions of other people plowing through and plugging away every day in similar ways. Cause, when you’re in a daily battle with the command center of your universe, you need a little pat on the back now and again!
So, I am starting down this thematic road in order to share some of the many helpful tools and resources I’ve gathered (and continue to gather) along the way (plug for next week’s post :). Because, as it turns out, staying mentally healthy is ongoing project– something I didn’t fully get until recently. I’d always believed that there was some magic combination of ingredients (meditation + exercise + therapy for instance) that would equal out to a forever-stellar mental state for me (inclusive of all the usual ups and downs of course).
But alas, there is more to it than that. Building a better brain is not a single solution kind of deal. What works this month may prove less effective next month; what previously seemed useless, now works wonders. Because, as I’ve learned, our brain is not a fixed entity, but an ever growing and changing (thank heavens!), not to mention, wildly complex organ.
Tune in again next week for some tools and exercises I’ve found very helpful in addressing the four core beliefs that often accompany mental health challenges: “I’m alone in this”; “This will never end”; “There is something deeply, inextricably wrong with me”; “I have no power to help myself”. If any of these sound familiar, fear not, they can be changed!
Til then, Rock on 🙂