I’ll be the first to admit that I was ashamed of my anxiety and depression. I was oblivious to the clinical signs of depression, and having never really dealt with social anxiety before, it took me a while to understand that I was struggling with a mental illness. It took me even longer to verbally admit, be it my close family and friends, that I was victim to mental illness.
Mentally ill, mentally unstable, mental demons – often sounds a lot like crazy.
The stigma around mental health is evident, and it is strong. It’s time we break it down.
One of the most interesting lessons I’ve learned from treatment is how we tend to praise and prioritize someone battling a physical illness over one mental. I was constantly regarded as strong, a warrior, and a fighter for battling cancer. When I look back on my cancer, the biggest battle was my battle with mental health.
For me, my anxiety didn’t only translate into being “crazy” but it also labeled me as weak. Having a reputation that people saw as strong, independent, intelligent, and goal oriented, I was very adamant about keeping my anxiety private. I initially denied my anxiety out of shame, to later force myself into situations that induced stress. As my anxiety worsened, I started to avoid social settings all together. But I never let anxiety be the excuse, I needed to come up with “something better.”
The Physical Illness Priority
I was more willing to excuse my self on the basis of my physical illness than risk the judgment of telling those around me that I was scared, anxious, and depressed.
Today is not a good day because:
- I don’t feel too good.
- My head is pounding
- My stomach hurts
- I’m feeling dizzy and nauseous.
- I’ve been throwing up all day
These symptoms apply to both physical and mental illness; yet, physical illness always seems to be more accepted and understandable.
Physical versus Mental
The term “illness” might as well translate to “something wrong.” Whether it be a cell mutation, a tumour, or the common cold, there is something wrong with your health, and in most cases, there is scientific explanation for it.
These illness’, especially life threatening, can be accompanied by hallmark cards, stuffed teddy bears, and home-made chicken soup. Words of sympathy and encouragement are shipped to the victim’s door. After all, they didn’t ask for this, and no one saw it coming. No one would question my excuse to bail for the reason of cancer; those physical symptoms are real and justified.
What about mental illness?
In this instance, that “something wrong” may be identified as you. You’re overreacting, being a baby, or just plain crazy. After all, what is so terrifying about going to a family function, taking a new course, or running errands in the mall? The problem is in your head, you’re just thinking too much. There is no external attacker, no hospital visits, no “real” explanation as to why your body is responding the way that it is.
But to a person struggling with mental illness, everyday life challenges can be the external attacker that may go so far as to send you to the hospital. What most people don’t understand is that those who suffer from anxiety may have at some point experienced a traumatic or life altering event which triggers a “fight or flight” response in the brain to instances it perceives as threats. It is a natural instinct that we all have, and for people with anxiety, this instinct is heightened. Something about those situations put us into flight mode, and it’s something that we deal with on a daily basis.
Physical and Mental Illness’ belong on the same spectrum.
Both the physical and mental aspects of human health are relevant and even reliant on one another. I am guilty of having thought otherwise.
When doctors told me that anxiety and depression was a side effect of my treatment, I honestly didn’t take them too seriously. I mean, I’m 19 with cancer, of course I’m going to be sad, but I can handle it. As for the social anxiety, not me. I have zero problems being social.
Physical illness can create mental stressors, leading to mental health issues
In my case, a physical illness (leukemia) can wear you down so much that your mental state, your sense of self, your self-worth, all things associated with a healthy well-being- begin to deteriorate. Thus, come the mental health demons (my personal favourite: anxiety and depression).
In this same way, a mental illness can induce physical symptoms and signs of physical distress
Mental health issues force a stress onto the body. Remove mental health from the equation for a moment and consider simple emotions. My mom always worried about my being upset while in treatment. Her fear wasn’t just for the sake of my emotional well-being, but she believed that if I thought negatively, it would reflect in my health. I thought that if I just took all of my medication and did what science told my doctors to do, I could think whatever the hell I wanted.
Turns out, the worse I felt emotionally, the more my blood counts dropped, forcing me to skip rounds of chemo and extend my 2+ year treatment protocol for another week. It led to more infections, liver issues, the common cold- you name it. And the cycle continues.
My thoughts were forcing a negative reaction to my body; mental illness has the same effect.
Denying my anxiety out of shame meant forcing myself into situations that I didn’t want to be in, only to induce fits of nausea, cold sweats, and panics attacks leading up to those moments. My blood pressure dropped on various occasions not related to anxiety, but I would often feel similar symptoms leading up to a panic attack. Whether it be loss of hearing, sight, and dizziness- my physical health was heavily reliant on my mental health. When I forced stress onto my mental health, my body responded physically. Like cancer, anxiety has no cure. Unlike my cancer, anxiety has no treatment end date; it’s something some people live with everyday.
Give yourself some credit
Before you label yourself as weak, or believe that you are crazy, credit yourself for waking up everyday to fight your mental demons, to go to sleep and do it again the following day.
As someone with inexperience dealing with social anxiety prior to cancer, and a former advocate for tough love, I have tried to break free from anxiety by forcing myself into situations to just “snap out of it.” It’s not that simple. I now understand how uncontrollable the symptoms of mental health can be.
I have the utmost respect for people who struggle with mental health issues. Where people see my strength in battling cancer, I see strength in coming out of my depression, and finding ways to live with my anxiety. As exhaustive as it is, I’m still here, living and breathing, and I fought hard to be here. People with mental health issues are some tough a** people for putting up a hard fight everyday single day. I am no longer ashamed of my anxiety and depression, and nor should you.
Whenever you find that your anxiety and depression is getting in the way of life, and you’re too embarrassed to admit that you’re struggling with mental health, remember this:
Physical + Mental = Human
You are not two parts, your body is whole, and it’s important to take care of yourself. Take a sick day for your mental health and emotional well-being when you need to. Get yourself some chicken soup and cuddle up with some blankets, sleep-in past noon. Recover from the stress of your illness- both physical and mental.
Your mental health is just as important as your physical, its time we prioritize both.
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