Treatment Helped Cure My Mental Illness, But I Wish It Hadn't

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
At 10 a.m., my pink hair tucked up tightly into a bun and rarely worn glasses sliding down my nose, I stared idly at the bland watercolor paintings surrounding me in the lobby of my hotel. I checked my watch again and yawned. I was scheduled to give a presentation on the state of math and science in high schools in about 45 minutes and was feeling pretty damn apathetic about it.

As in the past, I’d woken up early and reserved ample time for a meltdown this morning. A year ago, I would’ve been curled up in the fetal position on my hotel-room floor or frantically wiping down my tear-stained eye makeup, shouting at myself in the mirror to pull it together. But today, the meltdown didn’t occur and I had extra time on my hands.

The presentation came and went, people applauded, and I left the conference feeling underwhelmed. Before, I would’ve felt positively exhilarated for managing to make it through a presentation. But now, I just wanted to go order a mediocre salmon salad from room service, swipe through Central Floridian guys on Tinder, and take a nap. The entire morning had been completely anticlimactic and I missed the cathartic come-down after an insane panic episode.

Self-stigma of mental illness (i.e., feeling bad for having it) receives much focus in clinical and social psychology research. When someone feels that others are negatively judging his or her mental illness, it can greatly affect her sense of identity and subsequent treatment, according to research by Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD, and his colleagues at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In recent years, however, research has also begun to focus on a counterintuitive reverse effect: that accepting and disclosing mental illness may lead to positive experiences. People suffering from mental illness can sometimes be energized by identifying with their disorder. Dr. Corrigan speaks to the power of “coming out” about one’s own mental illness, suggesting that disclosure of mental illness and the recovery process can actually help those with mental illness feel empowered and experience less self-stigma. (Experimental data seems to back this up.) Similarly, essayist Melissa Miles McCarter has indicated that shedding her bipolar disorder would also mean she has to shed worthwhile aspects of her identity. “It would mean shedding the courage I have developed in sharing my story.”

Anxiety has been a part of my identity since childhood. I was the kid who always needed to be picked up from slumber parties and who wound up bawling Real Housewives-style in the principal’s office after timed math tests. During periods of severe panic, I lost weight, my body unable to keep up with the adrenaline constantly coursing through my body. Worse, though, more than the physical torment or social aversion, were the the feelings of human inadequacy. I hated that I couldn’t outsmart my panic attacks. I hated having to avoid work presentations whenever possible and hated that when I couldn’t avoid them I would spend hours crying beforehand. Even with Lord Xanax in my belly, the foreshadowing was brutal.

Having panic attacks was a quirk (and granted, a crutch) that I had learned to embrace as part of my identity.

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Gradually, over years and years, I found the right cocktail of confidence, desensitization, apathy, and medication to “conquer” panic attacks. Most importantly, I embraced coping instead of cure. I stopped trying to fight my panic attacks, accepted that they would happen, and that I would eventually get through them. I recognize that I have not seen the last panic attack of my life, and that’s okay. Expecting to completely defeat panic attacks was not a healthy state of mind and would just set me up for heartbreak each time I thought I was all better, only to “relapse.” This is also where the positive self-identification comes in. A close friend would remind me that anxiety is a “burden of greatness.” I began to see anxiety as a part of my complex self — a motivational tool and a vehicle for my passion. I’m not great in spite of my anxiety; rather, I’m great, in part, because of it.

Ironically, as I began to associate positively with anxiety, it began to diminish. I found myself with a newly unique situation: total identity crisis. For years, having panic attacks was a quirk (and granted, a crutch) that I had learned to embrace as part of my identity. Sharing and laughing about some of my panic experiences was another coping strategy for me — one that allowed me to connect with others. I likened myself to an overstimulated, slightly warped Manic Pixie Dream Girl. My panic antics made me loveable — and I could still use them to get out of lame-ass parties. I expressed this identity loss to my therapist with irritation: “What, am I just supposed to be normal now?” For my entire life, I had held tremendous disdain for people who had their shit together and now I was one of them? Wholly unacceptable.

When I first expressed my strange sense of sadness and loss to my husband, he comforted me accordingly.

“I was such a mess for so long,” I said. “It’s weird to not be a neurotic anymore.”

“Well,” he said. “Easy there. I don’t know that I’d say you aren’t neurotic anymore.”

However, life is strangely easier. I find myself voluntarily giving up my seat to stand on the train — a move I never could’ve made before, as I would’ve been terrified of standing up and fainting amongst my fellow sweaty commuters. I can eat alone at a crowded restaurant without major incident. I gave 10 work presentations last spring — AND DIDN’T DIE. It’s all a bit...tedious. Sometimes, I weirdly miss getting all worked up over nothing.

So where does one go from here? Well, for one thing, I need to come up with new excuses for bailing on parties. Perhaps a good ankle sprain? I work to remember that I was and am more than just a storm of panic. Some of the factors that led to manifestation of my anxiety (passion, motivation) still exist. I am the same person, but coping. I attempt to enjoy my less-frantic existence. While I might be sort of boring now, at least I don’t need a chaperone and a large dose of sedatives every time I have to go to the doctor or get on a plane. I can sit back, relax, eat my salmon salad, and feel tremendously grateful that today, I am calm.

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