Diminishing the Shame of My Mental Health

As I think I’ve mentioned before here, I struggle with ADHD, but have only had a formal diagnosis for just over a year. During that year, with the advising of my doctor, I’ve been taking a small dosage of venlafaxine (aka Effexor), which is usually used for treatment of anxiety and depression.

This seemed to be helping a little for awhile (with the strange but manageable side-effect of making my whole body itch intermittently), but its effectiveness seems to have waned over the past several months. At first we tried increasing the dosage, which didn’t seem to help.

Ultimately I decided to double down on the non-medicative efforts I’ve developed/discovered over my undiagnosed life (namely, GTD, associated organization/productivity systems, and meditation) and get off medication completely. The doctor advised me to slowly lower my daily dosage over three weeks. Unfortunately, in my inexperience, I decided to take some good advice completely out of context and knock that time down to about 3 days.

Unsurprisingly, this was a huge mistake.

The last few days of my visits with family were plagued with headaches, fatigue, mood swings, extreme inattentiveness, nausea, chills… Great Fun, in other words. The fact that this was essentially my own fault didn’t help my mental state. So once I got back home, I started drastically slowing the medication discontinuation process. Things got back to normal for awhile.

This past week, though, life got really difficult again. I thought I was coming off really slowly, but those symptoms returned in full force, especially during the past two days. Perhaps I just need to power through it, I thought. It can be hard to know what “normal” is in the middle of these episodes.

What made this even more difficult was the start of the year and some ambitious goals I had set for myself. When I started failing at these goals the first week of them, I got really hard on myself. When coupled with depression-like symptoms of medication discontinuation, my nights were… not enjoyable, to say the least. Which means I got less sleep. Which means symptoms got worse.

Because it was getting increasingly difficult to pretend everything was fine with me, that I had returned from my vacation well-rested, I decided to publicly post about my struggles on Facebook. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support I got from my friends and family. Several friends texted and messaged me. Even some fond acquaintances I don’t see very often got in touch. It was incredibly encouraging to know that I wasn’t as alone as I was starting to sometimes feel (which seems a little bit silly now, admittedly, but it’s hard to realize those things when you temporarily sort of despise yourself).

Today I’m feeling quite a bit better. Honestly, I’m still not sure what the “right” thing to do is, but staying active and not being too hard on myself seems to be working okay. I am much more cautious, though, about my treatment of myself now that I’m really aware of just how fragile my mind is, and now I know that I have good friends and colleagues who support me and understand, many of whom have been where I am.

On a much more important note that I touched upon in my Facebook post: mental health still has such a heavy stigma. Even in popular culture mental health treatment is often seen as somewhat of a joke. But the brain is just like any other organ in the body. Our bodies are not perfect heavenly creations. They’re miraculous, rusty, organic machines that have taken billions of years to come together, and even the most well-tuned machines screw up eventually. It’s only logical that at some point, most of our brains will have issues that we’ll need help dealing with, just like we need help dealing with our stomachs and the flu and any other illness, major or minor. We talk about coming down with the flu like we talk about the weather, but I’ve felt a deep sense of shame whenever I bring up the issues I’ve had with my health. Medication didn’t seem to work for me, but for others I’ve heard it’s the only thing that brings a much-needed sense of normalcy. There should not be any shame in that.

It’s easy to forge a cool, semi-detached façade out of anxiety and insecurity, and to outsiders, it’s easy to interpret this as everyone else being perfect. It’s almost like a form of imposter syndrome. But the truth is, everyone has struggles. Everyone is just trying to figure out how to get through life. Sure, sometimes some people struggle more than others. But everyone gets their turn at the wheel of the struggle bus.

So let’s all continue to support each other and break down the taboos surrounding the mental health and its treatment. Let’s talk about our bipolar shifts like we talk about our allergies (if we want to). Let’s build each other up rather than keeping ourselves and each other down. It will only make us all better.

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