Illustration: I Am Not Ashamed
With so many recent deaths associated with mental illness lately, I feel compelled to share my truth in hopes to further break the stigma of mental health in this country.
***Trigger warning: This post discusses some sensitive topics regarding mental health illness and I am only writing to share my own personal experience. If you feel like you are struggling with mental illness or you know someone who may, please reach out to a licensed, qualified professional.
So, I'm 26 years old, married to the love of my life, and we have 2 beautiful young children. Together, my husband and I have the ability for me to stay at home with our kids. I am even able to pursue my creative passions while running my business from home. We own a beautiful house, we go on vacations, we can spoil our kids on birthdays and Christmas, etc.
By all means, I am incredibly blessed and extremely thankful for everything and everyone in my life. BUT, by no fault of my own or anyone else's, I still wake up everyday and struggle with my identity, my confidence, and my worth.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been a worrier. My mind races from one thought to the next with endless scenarios and what-ifs. Enter anxiety: an invisible weight constantly dragging you down and occupying your every thought. It affects everything: your self-esteem, your actions, your relationships, etc.
As a child, I was very reserved. I cannot tell you how many times I've been asked "why are you so quiet?" or "why are you being shy?". Because, you know, putting someone on the spot like that, is totally going to make them come out of their shell! When you're young and impressionable, when someone says that to you, you start to think that there is something wrong with you. Enter depression: another invisible weight dragging your entire being down and dimming all the bright and good. To this day, I still avoid certain large-gathering social situations like parties, events, and even shopping. I'm not your typical girl, I hate shopping. I don't know if its crowds or too many choices, but I get physically ill in stores. Thank God for Amazon and Kroger ClickList!
At some point, I became obsessed with perfection and control. I thrive on control and routine. Enter Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): a continuous cycle of obsessions and compulsions. There is a whole spectrum for OCD, and I experience the end called symmetry and orderliness. I am sort of a neat freak and a minimalist. I loathe clutter and messes, which makes certain moments of motherhood a joy. I cringe at things that aren't symmetrical or balanced, or things that are out of place. This lends itself to me being a designer, but its exhausting. And I don't really care for anyone else to clean my house, not even my husband, because it only feels clean to me if its done exactly my way. I am also far from a spontaneous person, and I don't do well with change. This makes being a military spouse even more challenging because you always have to adjust your routine and you have zero control.
Another spectrum of OCD is Body-focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB), or compulsive behaviors that unintentionally cause physical damage to one's body and affect appearance, think nail biting, for instance. Enter dermatillomania and trichotillomania: compulsive skin and hair picking. I don't ever remember a time that I haven't picked at my skin, mainly my cuticles. I cannot stand hangnails and long cuticles, leading to me picking at them, often until they bleed. My fingers, particularly my thumbs, are irreparably scarred from years of picking. Every time I visit a nail salon for a manicure, which is very seldom, the nail technician asks me what happened to my fingers.
This skin picking started to evolve into other self-grooming habits in my adolescent years. I can pinpoint the one specific experience that triggered my trichotillomania. Backstory: I have always had VERY thick, bushy eyebrows, or eyebrow if you will. One day in middle school at lunch, a boy nicknamed me "Chewbacca" because of this. Looking back at this now as an adult and a Star Wars fan, I should have taken it as a compliment. Who doesn't love Chewie?! But I digress. It was a good laugh for everyone, even my friends. I even laughed along because I knew if I acted offended, it would stick. When I got home from school that day, I asked my mom to help me pluck my eyebrows, which led to daily plucking to this day. I became obsessed with it, and eventually progressed to more than just my eyebrows. I began picking at the ends of my hair in high school, and by the time I was in college, I was pulling entire hairs from my head. I would sit in one spot for hours and pull and pull and pull, until I felt I had removed all of the "imperfect" hairs from my scalp. On occasion, I give myself headaches, partly from the pulling and partly from the strain on my eyes. I have even developed calluses on my fingertips from hair pulling, which just adds another thing to pick.
Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but it is impulse. Its taken me years to accept this disorder and understand that its my mind's way of possessing control. The irony is that I have no control over these impulses. I have been to therapy and taken anti-depressants, none of which have helped me stop picking or pulling entirely. I've even shaved parts of my head that were the areas most affected and noticeably thinner. My current sidecut and undercut are not merely for trendiness, but for necessity. You don't know how close I've come to shaving my entire head to remove the temptation altogether. I'm not convinced I'll never shave my head one day, but I so desperately want to have that long, thick hair I had growing up.
One of the most helpful coping mechanisms for me is drawing. I created these illustrations as a personal project, but its only appropriate that I share them:
I have come to terms that I will probably never be free of mental illness, but that there are treatments and therapy available. I'm very thankful to have people close to me that accept my issues and don't judge me for them. I also take a small bit of comfort in the fact that I am not alone:
1 in 5 adults in America experience mental illness.*
Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness.*
6.9% (16 million) of American adults live with major depression.*
18.1% (42 million) of American adults live with anxiety disorders.*
And while there are countless resources available for those struggling with mental illness, only about 40-50% of Americans are getting the help they need.* With so many hotlines, professionals, treatments, support groups, etc. available, this percentage should be vastly higher. Until, we start talking about mental illness and stop brushing it under the rug, nothing will change.
Speaking from experience, mental illness can completely highjack your ability to ask for help. Check on your friends and your loved ones. Stop judging and start helping. I know my experience is only one small blip, but I only hope that my vulnerability here will inspire at least one person to start a conversation.
Do you suffer from mental illness?
*Statistics cited from National Alliance on Mental Illness.