Living with Mental Illness

A college coed shares his experiences

Mental illness affects about 20 percent of Americans, and it can affect anyone. Lifestyle sat down with a young man dealing with anxiety and depression to get his take on mental illness and living with it. He is a 21-year-old Warrenton resident who attends college and is heavily involved in sports.

What type of mental illness is affecting your life?
Anxiety and depression.

When did you start feeling the effects of mental illness?
As far as the anxiety, I was really young, probably 5 or 6. The depression started after my father passed away when I was 12.

Do the anxiety and depression affect you both at once?
I do get periods of both, and sometimes they come at once. That can really be a downward spiral into hell.

What’s anxiety like?
When I get anxious, I start to doubt and question myself about how to act. I start to think about my life, and I start to ask myself how I should function in different situations. When I’m not anxious and I’m with a group of friends, I’m pretty normal, just hanging out and cracking jokes. I can take in information and process it and take part in conversations. But when I have anxiety I’m constantly asking myself how I should act. It’s like there’s a voice in my head that asks, “What would a normal person do in this situation? What would the ‘normal me’ do? Should I crack a joke? Should I say something meaningful?” And because of all the options, I kind of get confused, and wind up just staying kind of quiet. I just become more reserved. I don’t know how to act.

What’s depression like?
Depression is kind of like looking at your life from really far away, but zeroing in on a really specific perspective, like looking down a telescope at your mind. And I’m second guessing and doubting myself, doubting all the decisions I’ve made in my life, and obsessing on how I could have done things differently. I panic and I cry in the worst stages of it. I just want to comfort that inner child inside myself. I guess the word to describe how I feel is “damaged.” Sometimes I’ll stare at a wall for minutes at a time, and not even realize it. I get very sensitive and irritable and annoyed. I become hostile and end up picking fights with people. I’ll become unforgiving. For instance, somebody will say something that normally I’d just brush off or take as a joke, and I’ll hang onto that one comment for hours at a time and I’ll use it against them, I’ll hold a grudge. I don’t mean to do this, but it just happens, I wish it didn’t happen like that. But that’s just how I experience it, I don’t know what it’s like for others.

Who do you tell about your anxiety and depression?
I talk to my mom and my girlfriend, I tell them literally everything. I have a few close friends who know about it also. But other than that I don’t tell a lot of people. Sometimes it’s hard because I’m embarrassed, and I feel like people won’t understand and won’t have any empathy. Sometimes I wish people knew about my anxiety and depression, but then again sometimes I’m glad they don’t.

Sometimes I struggle academically, I can’t concentrate, and completing assignments is hard. So sometimes I have to tell my teachers. But I’ll kind of beat around the bush, and hint that I’m having some health problems. It’s exhausting to explain everything. I tell them I’m having some health issues that are making it difficult to be in school, and usually they understand. Sometimes they’ll ask for a doctor’s note, and then I tell them what’s really happening. Usually they understand when I’m straightforward with them.  

Do you feel people look at you differently once you’ve told them, or are people understanding in general?
I usually find that it’s actually a positive experience if I tell people. It’s just hard, and I have to find the right time and the right words. Like I said, it’s exhausting to explain.

Do you have a primary care doctor or a psychiatrist?
I have a primary care doctor, and he prescribes medication to help me. I also have a therapist that I work with once a week to help me understand some of these emotions, and I also have the support of my friends and family. When I need to talk, they are always there, and I find talking to them or to my therapist is much better than any medication.

Do you think there’s a stigma associated with mental illness?
I think that we’ve come a long way as a society in understanding and accepting mental illness and the treatments for it. I think about the fact that in the not too distant past, there was a time that people that go through what I do couldn’t get treatment, and people wouldn’t understand. They’d just think you were being lazy or slow, and there were negative connotations about it. But now I think there’s more positive attitude towards mental illness and people are more supportive of people who need help.

What do you recommend for people experiencing symptoms of mental illness?
Talk to somebody. Dig deep down and really figure out what’s bothering you, be honest with yourself and understand your emotions. Sometimes you can’t always fix what’s wrong, but you can understand it. If you can understand it you can control it a little bit better. Just really do a lot of soul searching. It’s really important to talk to somebody, like a therapist, about it and they can help you explore your emotions. Sometimes medication can help.

What about the future?
I think that it’s constantly changing, and I think you constantly have to change with it. As long as you keep challenging yourself to understand your emotions, then you’ll be able to live a happy life that you’re satisfied with. I’m pretty optimistic. I do take medication, but I hope to discontinue it soon. I’d like to focus on more holistic ways to get past some of these mental barriers.

Have you tried those before?
I have, and they work for me. What I mean by holistic is really just living a positive life, surrounding yourself with good people, and trying your best to live life normally. When you get depressed, sometimes it’s hard to maintain a regular schedule, be on time, even things like taking a shower or cleaning up the kitchen can be monumental tasks that seem beyond your capability. When you’re depressed, your surroundings can reflect how you feel, so surrounding yourself with good people, and keeping a timely schedule and a clean environment can really help. I think that the more you push yourself to accomplish these things the happier you’ll feel about completing those tasks. It’s hard at the beginning, but the better you become at it the better you’ll feel about yourself in the long run.

Is there a silver lining to your mental illness? Do you look at the world differently having experienced it?
Actually, I am glad that I have been able to experience the lows, because it makes me appreciate when I’m normal and happy that much more. When I accomplish something, or I’m with a group of friends doing something that I love, just enjoying the moment, I think I enjoy it so much more having experienced the lows of depression. In general, when depression and anxiety aren’t taking control, I’m really a pretty happy dude; I’m outgoing and I really like to be friendly and around people. But you never know when it’s going to rear its ugly head. That’s the hard part.  

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 102 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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