I’ve been told more than once that I don’t look or act like someone with a mental illness. What does that person look like or act like, anyway? Mental illness does not discriminate. The story shared today reinforces that fact. Who would expect a smart, talented, and beautiful young woman to be overwhelmed by anxiety and bedridden with depression? Sara’s inspirational story reveals that the first step toward recovery is accepting the reality of your illness. From there, the road can turn toward a brighter future. With treatment, hard work, and support, Sara is back on track and will soon achieve her goal of graduating law school.
Depression & Anxiety – Acceptance & Success
I like to compare how I experience depression to a gloomy haze that starts so subtly you can’t detect it, and your eyes continue to adjust to the darkness creeping up around you, until all of a sudden you wake up and you can’t function anymore and you realize you are totally surrounded by a dark cloud that has touched every aspect of your life.
There are many of us who deal with mental health issues: anxiety, depression, bipolar, and many others. You are very far from alone. Recognizing it is truly one of the hardest parts.
My family has always been supportive and many extended family members deal with some form of mental illness. I am also fortunate to have a small group of close friends who were very understanding about what I was going through. I realize not everyone has this experience. I hope that any family members or friends reading this will recognize the importance of supporting their loved ones with mental illness.
I have depression and anxiety. I was diagnosed in my early 20s, only a few years ago. After my diagnosis, I had weekly counseling sessions for many months, then once a month for years. I eventually “graduated” to as-needed appointments. I am still taking my antidepressant, which has really helped me. I think the combination of therapy and medication has been incredibly effective. I have learned better coping skills and mindfulness, and actively employ these strategies to keep myself motivated. But getting to this point was not as easy as it may sound.
I believe it’s important to share my story, but many times the stigma holds me back. There is an attitude of not wanting to seem weak and this makes me less likely to bring up my struggles. But to be fair, most people I’ve shared with have been very understanding. Perhaps some of what holds me back is my fear of how they will respond, as opposed to how people will actually respond.
Although I did not receive a formal diagnosis until a few years ago, I think the anxiety has been present in some form for most of my life. I have always had a tendency to be anxious. I am a chronic worrier and internalize a lot of my problems. This has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. I first became aware of my depression during my second year of law school.
Stress can be a good thing, and it’s necessary in order to stimulate motivation. But I found myself with so much stress that my motivation tanked.
A lot of things contributed to my stress. First, I had moved to attend law school. Being an hour away from home didn’t seem too bad at first, but when I was used to living five minutes away, it really affected me to cut back my visits. Since my parents’ divorce when I was a teenager, I had often felt responsible for caring for my immediate family, especially my mom. Not being able to check in as much as I would have liked made me feel extremely guilty and worried. My siblings and I have always been very close, and being away from them also took its toll. Because of the difficult times we experienced, I had looked out for them maybe more than a typical older sibling would. I constantly worried about them, and whether they were doing okay without me (they were). On top of all of this, my grandfather had passed away, and I never fully allowed myself to grieve due to my busy schedule.
Law school is a competitive environment and it added to my stress. I was suddenly having to study every day as hard as I used to study the entire week of my college finals. School took over my life. But because of increasing anxiety and depression, I became unable to study. I just couldn’t make myself do the things I needed to do. I couldn’t even do the things I enjoyed. I started to avoid everyone in my life. It came to the point that I barely got out of bed, and was skipping class. When I did make myself study, I could only do it in front of the TV, using the distraction as a buffer. I failed a course. And then another one. When I was dismissed from law school, I finally admitted my need for help.
When my counselor gave me the diagnosis and asked if I was interested in trying medications, I started bawling. I finally released the pressure that had been building up for so long. I was upset, partly in denial, but also relieved because I knew these were steps that needed to be taken and would help me. I got started on an antidepressant and began Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT, turning negative thoughts into positives); both were vital to my recovery.
Even with treatment, some days I just have bad days. It’s something that is difficult to accept, especially when I feel that I am doing well overall. It’s easy to just give up on those days and not fight to keep my motivation. The CBT and mindfulness skills (focusing attention on living in the moment) have been helpful in learning what factors affect my mood and how I can deal with stress more effectively. I started to time myself on tasks, especially studying, to make sure I wasn’t letting myself drift along with no deadline.
After a few months of treatment, I appealed to the academics committee to reinstate me. I had to write a personal statement, get three letters of recommendation, and go in front of the committee to state why I felt I should be readmitted. I also had to be prepared to answer their questions. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. After voting, they reinstated me and I had to repeat my second year of law school. Since then I have not failed any courses, and thanks to my counselor and medication, I am enjoying the rest of my legal education and look forward to the future.
There are so many options now to try to better our situations, and the medical community continues to work to find more.
This is the first in a series of short memoirs of mental illness: the challenges, treatment, and outcomes. The blog posts will be written by courageous individuals who desire to share their stories. (Some details have been changed for confidentiality.) The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the reality of living with mental illness, and to demonstrate there is hope in recovery. Caroline
Sara used a website/app to help her stay focused: Habatica (formerly HabitRPG). It was very effective in keeping her daily schedule and getting things done. https://habitica.com