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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Guest Column: Overcoming mental health issues involves opening up

Finding the courage to ask for help is a decision I will never regret.

Feb. 26, 2014

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Just because mental disorders are becoming less stigmatized and more accepted as an actual disease in our society doesn’t mean it is easy to admit you have one. And just because you’ve revealed that information to someone doesn’t make it easy to let them know when you’re struggling with it.

For about three years now I have been battling with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, otherwise known as PMDD. Basically, this means that when I’m PMSing, I get severely depressed. PMDD isn’t that common either; it’s found in only 2-10 percent of menstruating women.

I remember admitting to friends during one of those bad weeks that I felt depressed, and on more than one occasion, their response was along the lines of, “You’re just sad. It’s just your period,” or “You can’t be depressed; you don’t look like it.” But what does depression or any other mental illness look like? It doesn’t have a face. You can’t look at someone and immediately tell they’re suffering.

Depression is something people deal with daily, so chances are someone who has been experiencing it for a while is a professional at masking it. It took me about six months to realize that feeling this sad wasn’t normal and another six months to get the courage to ask for help. I spent the following year searching for a solution.

“Feeling depressed” is thrown around all the time in our society as a swap for feeling down or heartbroken. With PMDD, I might not have been dealing with depression relentlessly for months at a time, but I was for an entire week at a time on a monthly basis. It isn’t something that can be ignored or shrugged off like sadness by going out and having a good time. It isn’t something that can be improved by counting your blessings or taking a moment to calm down. It is something that sticks with you every second of your day, like a little gray rain cloud following you around, and one that no one else can see.

During those weeks when PMDD took over my life, I was irritable and filled with anxiety, even around my best friends. It is even more than something that is always in the back of your mind: It’s a feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness and the lack of energy to will yourself to complete anything. Every little task seems huge when you’re lying in bed fighting with your mind about whether your life is even worth something.

I spent a week of each month for two years thinking this is just how it was going to be. I’d spend a week hating myself, feeling extremely self-conscious, unwanted and pathetic. The most frustrating thing was not knowing for sure what I was struggling with and not knowing how to get rid of it. I’d tried eating healthy and exercising, yoga, birth control and acupuncture. None of them were any help. I saw a doctor to explain what was going on. She put a name to my condition, wrote me a prescription for Zoloft and suggested I go to counseling. That’s when things began to look up. I still feel a bit down sometimes when I’m PMSing, but it doesn’t even compare to where I was a year ago.

If you’ve had mental health issues, you know just how exhausting and frustrating it can be and how tough they are to overcome. I spent so many days wondering what exactly was wrong and whether it was fixable. I tried for so long to deal with it on my own. Finding the courage to ask for help was a decision I will never regret, but it was not easy.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously or that I would be perceived as weak. But when your mind has gone to those dark places so many times, asking for help is the opposite of appearing weak. It shows your courage, strength and perseverance.

Living with a mental health issue is not the way we were intended to live.

My phone alarm goes off every night at 8:30, reminding me to take my medicine. Occasionally someone will ask what it’s for, and even though it is usually still uncomfortable to admit, I try to never hide from telling them it’s for an antidepressant. My hope is that being open about my mental health will serve as an example for others to realize it’s all right to say, “I’m not OK.”

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