This is mental health

By Blayne Waterloo

It’s exhausting.

Being a human is exhausting. Being a wife, a daughter, an employee, a conscientious person! The whole thing just makes you feel so heavy. Being. It’s a lot.

Before I knew that the chemicals in my brain weren’t like those of others, that’s all I knew. Life was just … a lot.

I was a 5-year-old whose eyes were locked on my window all night, watching the sky change colors, thinking, “When the window is light blue, I have to get up again.”

I was an 11-year-old kid putting dishes away who’d just sink to the floor in a heap, crying. My mom would ask what was wrong, and all I could say was, “I’m just tired.”

I was a 12-year-old who’d think, wouldn’t it be nice for my mom if we got in a car accident and I died but she’d be OK?

At school when I was 13, I passed a note to my best friend, saying, “I don’t see myself living a long life.” She called after school just as I’d taken a kitchen knife out of its block and began cutting the tips of my fingers. Her parents took me to youth group a few days later and insisted my life was worth living, that I had it all wrong.

I didn’t realize that was my first suicide note. I didn’t realize I’d write another one.

I didn’t know that I needed help, and that no one knew how to help me.

Each day felt heavy. Like when you’ve got peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you have to pry your lips apart to unstick it, and your jaw hurts from pulling. It’s that split second before they smack back open, when it’s a little tough to breathe and you’re thinking, “Well, shit. What am I gonna do?”

And I didn’t know why. All I knew was that my mom would tell me I was “sensitive” in a way that suggested it was wrong to be that way. All I knew was that when I was 14 and I told my parents what had happened the year before, they told me that if they didn’t want to die, I shouldn’t either.

When I was 23, I was an editor at a newspaper near my hometown. The hours were inconsistent. I was always on call. It felt like I never worked enough to make my boss happy. And the traffic was horrendous.

I took 10 nighttime pain relievers a night to fall asleep and didn’t tell my now-husband.

When I became overwhelmed, I’d taken to crying at my desk then walking to the bathroom with my hair in my face, where I’d hit myself and tell my red-faced reflection in the mirror that no one else out there is crying and that I need to get my shit together, because I’m pathetic.

A highly saturated version of art of a hallway with a figure going into a room

This is how undiagnosed mentally ill people cope. This is how people who don’t know where to find help manage their mental illness.

I took a sick day nearly every other week until my boss took me aside and encouraged me to take advantage of the company’s employee assistance program. There, I was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Each day felt heavy. Like when you’ve got peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth, and you have to pry your lips apart to unstick it, and your jaw hurts from pulling. It’s that split second before they smack back open, when it’s a little tough to breathe and you’re thinking, “Well, shit. What am I gonna do?”

But I still had no idea what to do with it. I couldn’t afford regular therapy. So after my five sessions of EAP were up, I went to my family doctor, the one who delivered me at birth, and told him I needed medication based on these sessions.

He prescribed me a low dose of an anxiety medication. It helped during the day, but I still couldn’t sleep. When I asked him for a higher dose, he paused and asked, “Is it worse when you’re menstruating?”

I haven’t seen him since.

I went to a behavioral health care organization, talked to doctors who understood mental health. They adjusted my prescription again.

I went to group therapy. It was the first time I talked about what I was feeling and wasn’t met with anything but nodding and sympathetic eyes. It was the first time I was told, “You’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you.”

I brought my mom to group therapy. At the end of the session, she said to everyone, “I commend you.”

I’d moved on to another newspaper by that time, working with a tight-knit group of men where I was supposed to be “cool.” Where I wasn’t making enough money to pay my school loans or my car payment or my rent, but I was working 45 hours a week or more. And I still wasn’t sleeping.

My husband and I had to move because rent was increasing again, but we couldn’t find a place between our two newspaper jobs within our budget and in livable shape. We fought about money. We stressed about our present and our future.

Life was … a lot. I drank. A lot.

One day after I’d gotten drunk and was texting my husband about the house we were going to sign a lease for because time was running out and we didn’t have much choice, I started crying. I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. I was tired. I felt weighed down. Life was not supposed to feel this way. Every moment wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. I was just bad at it. And I was making everyone else’s life difficult by being here. I’d be doing them a favor if I wasn’t here anymore. I wrote a note apologizing.

My husband found me on our bedroom floor, overdosed. After a nurse hooked me up to flush the meds out of my system, another asked if I regretted attempting to die by suicide.

I didn’t.

This is how mentally ill people who haven’t found their solution after 25 years cope. This is what rock bottom for a mentally ill person looks like. It doesn’t happen out of nowhere. It’s a gradual progression of missteps and disbelief and trial and error and error and error.

You’re not cured when you leave a behavioral hospital. Especially not after eight days in close quarters with 20 other patients and no doors on the bathrooms. You’re given tools to cope, just like you were at group therapy. Just like you were in EAP.

But you’re given the time to look at yourself. Sober. With a clear schedule. With a journal. With group and individual therapy. You’re given a proper evaluation to determine which meds are right for you right now. You take the time to hone your skills and understand yourself.

Three years out of the hospital. Twenty-eight years of work.

And then you go back to your life. Still heavy. Still a lot. Still a mouth full of peanut butter.

But I took the time to listen to the language other people in my situation, both at a public and private level, were using, and sought out mental health communities. We were all saying the same thing, regardless of how we were saying it.

Being. Is. A lot. For everyone. You just have to be kind to yourself, and keep moving. Take stock of what in your life is good for your mental health and what isn’t. Change what you can. Change how you cope with what you can’t change.

I’m not a journalist anymore. I don’t live in that house anymore. I don’t drink like that anymore. I don’t talk to myself like that anymore. Three years out of the hospital. Twenty-eight years of work.

Mental illness is isolating because it’s work that you have to do on yourself, for yourself. You have to want to change to feel better. You have to find doctors who work for you. You have to go to therapy, and take your medication, and take control. And if you don’t value your own life, how are you supposed to see that?

I wasn’t given the proper tools growing up to recognize myself as being mentally ill. And neither were the people in my life. So I was stuck in a cycle of confusion, self-medication, and self-hate.

That’s why I’m open about being depressed and having anxiety. Because I’m not alone. And neither are you. My heart genuinely aches to think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t see themselves in others because others aren’t sharing, and suffers because of it. You’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of depression and/or anxiety, speak up! Reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a great resource, even if you don’t want to talk. It even has a chat feature.

Blayne Waterloo is a web designer living in Harrisburg, Pa., with her husband, two dogs, depression, anxiety and a love of horror movies. 

Art from the public domain, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access initiative (Creative Commons Zero).