End the Stigma: Speaking Out About Mental Health

 
End the Stigma

Speaking Out About Mental Health

In 2015, seventeen years after my first panic attack, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and major depressive disorder. A year and a half later I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

My name is Erika Gibson. I have a couple mental illnesses. And I don't like to be told that I should be ashamed of that.

 
 

▸ Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.
▸ Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. — 10 million, or 4.2% — experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
▸ 6.9% of adults in the U.S. — 16 million — had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
▸ Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
▸ Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays—sometimes decades—between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.
▸ Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18–44.
(SOURCES)


I had my first panic attack when I was seven.

It was a winter evening in North Carolina - not too late for a kid to be up, but late enough that it was dark out - and I was with my dad and my younger brother running errands.

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One of my clearest memories is my dad playing classical music on this speaker system in our living room after dinner. On occasion, he'd quiz me on who the composer was.

That night, we were at Circuit City. Returning or exchanging a speaker for the sound system, if my memory serves me correctly. (Which, let's be honest, there's a good chance it's not.) My dad left us in the car for what was supposed to be a quick trip inside. Apparently the whole thing only took about fifteen minutes, but it seemed like hours to me.

I started to feel like I was overheating. Like the van was too hot, like I couldn't breathe.

My brother was young enough that he was oblivious to my panic, babbling along in his car seat as I screamed and beat at the windows, trying to get someone's attention. I remember seeing a teacher that worked at my school and hoping maybe she would see me - maybe she would get help. Eventually someone did make a comment about a yelling kid in a van outside and my dad ran out to us.

My dad immediately recognized what was going on - and yes, I do realize how lucky I am to have grown up knowing rather than wondering what was wrong with me - and was able to talk me out of my panic attack. He reminded me that it was winter, that logically it was cold. That the car had gotten cooler since he went inside, not warmer. That my brain was playing tricks on me and I needed to be smarter than it. To think of snow and Christmas and take deep breaths.

We went to a local coffeeshop. My dad told the barista what happened. That was the first time my anxiety embarrassed me. I didn't know much about what was going on, but I was self-conscious as he told the barista. I was ashamed of what happened. I was seven years old and I felt like I wasn't as in control of my head as I should've been. 

That was the first time my anxiety embarrassed me, but it certainly wasn't the last.


As I got older, it became more clear that anxiety was a very present thing in my life. In high school I was able to identify the situations that would typically trigger my anxiety and avoid them. It never went away, but I learned how to quietly live around my anxiety.

I got through grade school without a formal diagnosis, as far as I'm aware (maybe someone diagnosed me and told my parents, but no one officially told me), started and left college, and then shuffled through a good number of post-college-dropout jobs. Until the fall before I turned 25, Anxiety and I had an agreement. We lived together like begrudging roommates. Sometimes I would forget to do the dishes and Anxiety would throw a minor bitch fit. But most of the time we merely coexisted, aware of but rarely acknowledging each other.

I was aware of symptoms of depression during my then-fiancé's deployment in 2013 and figured it was situational depression. A few weeks of being really low, then things slowly got better again. I didn't really think on it much after that. I always knew I had anxiety. But it was mild. It wasn't that bad. I only technically had anxiety. Barely. But depression? Nah. I just wasn't trying hard enough. I wasn't motivated enough. I didn't really care enough. There wasn't anything wrong with me. Just character flaws that needed a little fixing.

Looking back, there were signs of depression. One has to remember that depression isn't just sadness, there are all kinds of symptoms. For me it was like my emotional spectrum had gotten chopped off at either end, and I was just stuck in the 'meh' zone in the middle. It wasn't completely gloomy and gray, just a little desaturated. Over the course of a few years I had lost interest in all the hobbies that had previously fascinated me. I had a hard time getting out of bed. I struggled finishing tasks that I started. I was always running a little late. At the time, all of it felt like what I thought being a broke twentysomething should probably feel like. Those darn kids sleeping late and eating crap food.

Autumn of 2015, it was like the floor fell out from under me.


With no provocation that I'm aware of, I started having panic attacks as soon as I left the house in the morning. I was lucky that I worked a flexible job with a very understanding manager. Any other workplace and I'm sure this story wouldn't've had the same happy ending. 

For the first time, my anxiety was front and center. I couldn't hide it. I couldn't get away from it. 

The second afternoon, after coming to the realization that this was now a thing, I was standing outside my work calling every psychiatrist in the area. I wasn't even checking if they took my insurance, I just needed to see someone. Every doctor was booked for at least the next six months

Sidebar: Even at my very worst, I was still okay. I was never a danger to myself or others. I was just a useless lump of sobbing panic. I cannot even begin to imagine having to go through this experience as someone who was a danger to themself, or someone who was having a psychotic episode, or any of a number of more drastic situations. Mental health care in the states is woefully inadequate. If this is something that you or someone you know is struggling with, here's some things you can do to find help. If you are worried that you are an immediate danger to yourself, here's a list of suicide crisis hotlines by country.

In a moment of absolute desperation, I called someone I had met just a few weeks earlier. Someone with connections in the medical community that I'd hoped might know someone, anyone, that could make time to see me. She did, and even though I couldn't make an appointment right away, knowing that I had a doctor lined up helped calm me. 

After two days of missing work, the knowledge that I had taken that first step kept me grounded enough to go back to my job and everyday life. I used breathing exercises to keep the air hunger/dyspnea at bay. My appointment got rescheduled twice, but after a month I finally saw a psychiatrist.


In 2015, seventeen years after my first panic attack, I was diagnosed with social anxiety and major depressive disorder. A year and a half later I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. I use a combination of medication and self-care to manage all of these things.

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I am not ashamed of the disorders I have or the way I, working with my doctor, choose to treat them. If you prefer to stick with a pharmaceutical-free method of therapy, if your neurotransmitters are store-bought, if you're currently undiagnosed and coping with symptoms on your own, or if you're anywhere in between - it's important that you know that you are not alone. Maybe even more importantly, you need to know that you are not broken. You are not damaged goods. You are not undeserving of help. You are not destined for failure or solitude or misery. You are just as valid and wonderful after a diagnosis as you are before. And you are wonderful

Regardless if your diagnosis is similar to mine or not, if it involves any combination of the multitude of other mental illnesses and disorders that are out there, if you fall anywhere under the neuroatypical/neurodivergent umbrella, then here's what I have to say to you:

You are not alone. And if you are not okay right now, that's alright. But you can be. You deserve to chase your happiness, and you deserve to be well. Sometimes it's a struggle. Sometimes it's a full-blown war. But it's one worth fighting, because you are worth fighting for.

I'm not writing this down because I feel like my story is different or unique or somehow Lifetime movie worthy. It's absolutely and unquestioningly not. But that's why I'm writing it down. Because this is my normal. Maybe this is your normal. But this is absolutely the normal of some of your friends, coworkers, colleagues. If you are not one of the 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiencing mental illness this year, then you most certainly know and love someone who is. This is not inspiration porn. This is not something to belittle. ('Oh, I'm so OCD!' or 'God, he's so bipolar sometimes.' or 'Well yeah, but have you tried not being sad?') This is our normal. This is not something to pity us for. It is not something to praise us for 'getting through'. It is just something to know and understand. It just is.


 
 

My name is Erika Gibson. I'm a studio artist with a focus on functional pottery and a background in graphic and web design. I have a part-time office job. I have a wonderful husband. I have three cats. I have a lot of plants. I have depression. I have big hipster glasses. I have a car named Boomie. I have a house in a town of about two thousand people. I have ADHD. I have a Twitter that I still don't entirely understand but use anyways. I have a lot of white spray paint. I have friends and family that care about me. I have clay covered everything. I have social anxiety. I have taxes I'm procrastinating doing. I have bright red hair. I mostly have good days. I sometimes have bad days. I have a lot of things that make me who I am.

My name is Erika Gibson. I have a couple mental illnesses. And I don't like to be told that I should be ashamed of that.


I am neither a doctor nor a therapist, and am not giving professional advice in any capacity. If you are currently in a mental health crisis, this is a list of hotlines by country. If you are ready to find help for your mental wellness, this is a good place to find resources specific to your needs. this list is specifically for college students, but also includes information and resources in case you're uninsured. the trevor project provides a judgement free place for LGBTQ youth to seek help. If your mental health issues have been escalating, here's some information about seeking help.

If you are looking to track your mental health, here is some inspiration on how to go about doing that. If you struggle with self-care and find yourself feeling awful but don't know why, this is an interactive website to help you figure out what may help. If you are depressed and know you should exercise, but are too depressed to actually exercise, here is an article that may help. Considering online therapy? Read this.


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Mental HealthErika Gibson