Do it now. Seek help now.
Finding treatment for mental illness can be challenging. Don’t wait for things to get really bad. Seek treatment on a good day.
Mental illness is not unfamiliar to many MIT graduate students. People as smart as typical MIT students, when placed under that much pressure, are bound to have it. Look beyond three feet in front of you, and you’ll find evidence of it: that friend you haven’t seen in two weeks, long lines at MIT Mental Health, or even the entries on this blog. For me, my battle with mental illness has maintained a stronghold on my mind for years, but I wasn’t able to seek help in the way that most of my similarly afflicted peers have.
I’ve known I’ve had anxiety for at least six years, and I’m not going to pretend that my clashes with mental illness are entirely unique. Even among my friends with mental illnesses, I find commonalities despite our different diagnoses. What I will assert, however, is that I am uncommonly stubborn, especially regarding my treatment. When things have gotten particularly bad, I’ve received treatment, but only in a mental haze. Nothing has managed to stick. Truthfully, I detest the idea of my mind needing “modification”, or “fixing”, or “treatment”. In a way, I have a fondness for my own mental illness. Anxiety can protect me from doing something stupid. It can make me more empathetic towards other people’s mental struggles.
Of course, though, mental illness can hurt me too.
I find it difficult to cite a specific time and place for my first panic attack, as so many events from my past could qualify as the first. Perhaps it was in the eighth grade. On my way to the school bus, walking down a crowded hallway while talking to a friend, I suddenly felt crushed on all sides, as if the sea of people were about to swallow me whole like quicksand. Suddenly unable to breathe, I began violently shoving everyone around me. And then, just moments later, I began to stare at myself from the outside, gawking in horror and disgust as my friend screamed “Victoria! What the hell are you doing?!” Experiences like this one make up the beating heart of my mental illness.
Over the years, I’ve learned that my panic attacks all seem to follow the same trajectory:
- Priming. I’m almost always nervous or worried about something. However, some days I feel particularly amped, like I’m just waiting for something to make me pop.
- The trigger. A harsh comment from a colleague, a sudden issue with an experiment, a low score on an exam – all of these things and more can serve as triggers.
- The attack. I endure an almost out-of-body experience where I suddenly lose control of my motions and words. I start sobbing. Unable to catch my breath and completely apathetic to the feelings of those around me, I shriek and cry curled up in the smallest corner I can find.
- Conclusion. After enough time, I come out of the attack, and with that I’m initially met with relief, a deep breath, the wiping away of tears.
- “Post-panic depression”. A name I dubbed myself, in this stage I am faced with the reality of my prior behavior, the actions of some unrecognizable beast who was upset over something I can either barely remember or am no longer upset about. This is, by far, the worst part, and can also be the longest.
- Respite. My panic attacks are parasites; they feed off my energy, but only if they have energy on which to feed. As, a result, I usually get a brief respite between attacks.
I can map every moment of my life in terms of what stage of panic I am in, but only during respite can I truly think clearly, or critically, about myself.
When I hear stories about people finding treatment for their mental illnesses, even among my close friends, those stories always go the same way. A person struggles with mental illness for some time, and then they “hit rock bottom” and finally get the help they needed. But this trajectory was never going to work for me, and I advise against this mantra for anyone who’s mental condition swings so wildly like mine. At my “rock bottoms”, during any one of my panic attacks, I’m much less likely to act rationally. I’ve never been able to find a good therapist who really suits my needs in this state. Seeking the right treatment takes energy, patience, and critical thinking – three things I never have when I’m particularly anxious.
I found my current therapist, my current treatment plan, on a good day, during my respite. One night, a few months ago, I was in a particularly motivated mood, and a sudden thought popped into my head: “Do it. Do it now. Do it while you feel good.” On an impulse, I started contacting therapists. I couldn’t tell you what the impetus was except for the fact that I felt able to in that moment, and by acting on a whim, I prevented my stubbornness from stopping me. Most of the therapists I emailed never replied, but one of them did, and with MIT’s recent increase in mental health coverage, I was able to afford seeing her.
Grace (my current therapist) is not an end-all be-all solution, but she makes me feel as if my condition can improve without me losing myself. In many of our meetings, I do the majority of the talking, with her only chiming in at the very end. However, while her strategies are simple and brief, they are often brilliant – so obvious, yet I could never imagine coming up with them myself. Much of her therapy is taking advantage of the things I do well: “You like to write, so let’s write down your mood. You are good at talking, so let’s try this conversation strategy.” She is (at least for now) my perfect fit, but I do not believe I would have ever found her if I didn’t seek her at a time of mental clarity.
My advice, especially if you are obstinate like me: don’t wait for your next rock bottom. Seek help on a good day.
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