When it comes to discussing health, I have a lot to expound upon. I’ve had cancer, I’ve had the flu, I’ve had the measles, I’ve have chicken pox, I’ve had tuberculosis, and I’ve dealt with variety of mental illnesses.
When I mention mental illness, the conversation stops. Abruptly. Uncomfortably so. It is as if I’ve just announced I have leprosy and everyone in the room regards themselves to be exposed, testing positive, and beyond hope of a cure.
On those few occasions when people decide they want to hear what I mean when I say I’ve suffered from mental illness, they almost always tell me with visible relief that what I describe doesn’t actually connote mental illness.
Usually I smile and let the conversation die an unnatural death, rather than challenge depression denial.
Apparently, the only kind of mental illness that counts is the kind for which you end up in an asylum. That is like saying the only kind of physical illness that counts is something akin to a stroke that leaves one in a assisted living facility for life.
News flash: Mental illness, like physical illness, has many varieties, which are debilitating to differing degrees and for differing lengths of time. One need not be in an asylum for it to count.
I’ve gone through mental illness, and like my tuberculosis, I will almost certainly test positive for mental illness the rest of my life.
More than that, I’m okay with it.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not happy about it, but I’m okay with it.
I will be without thyroid function the rest of my life, but medical science is helping me manage quite well.
I suffer with depression and through the help of skilled professionals, family, and friends, I am doing better now than I have in decades.
I am doing better now than before I was diagnosed and had anything to talk about a dinner parties of the aging.
As with many health issues, they often go undetected until some physical crisis presents.
The same is true with mental illness.
In my case, the mental crisis was hard to miss.
It was a warm day in early May. I was sitting at my desk and all of a sudden I froze. Literally.
I was coming to the end of an unusually hectic school year, but had virtually every significant task behind me, save organizing an annual board meeting. I had finished the rigors of an academic year, completed my second book manuscript, and finished hundreds of New Hampshire Primary campaign events.
I was about ready to enter into a relaxed summer schedule and with so much accomplished, I had every reason to look forward toward a relaxed season.
Instead, I was staring at the wall and unable to move.
Unable, that is, to work. Unable to send another email. Unable to make another phone call. Unable to do anything that would constitute anything remotely related to productivity.
After dozens of minutes, I realized something bad was happening. It seemed to be the mental health equivalent of a stroke. Entire parts of my body were not responding to my mental commands.
Finally, it was all I could do to call my therapist and explain the symptoms.
He immediately cleared his schedule for me.
Within an hour I was in his office, and I learned I was on the brink of an emotional melt-down, otherwise known as a burn-out. In my case, it is better called a flame out.
There was a lot more going on than just a burn-out; unattended psychological issues had all of the sudden presented themselves as an emotional malignancy that needed to be addressed immediately.
As much as I wished to deny what was happening, I couldn’t.
I was no more able to work after my appointment than before. And as I started to read up on the diagnosis I received, the more it became clear that I wasn’t “unusual.” This happens to people who have similar mental conditions and similar circumstances.
In short, just like a physical illness, mental illness can be diagnosed and treated because other people have endured the same things.
That didn’t make it any easier to tell my supervisor that I needed to go on an indefinite medical leave.
Or my family.
My wife was scared. She had a lot of questions, similar to those we faced when I was diagnosed with cancer.
Will I recover?
The answer was the same: Definitely maybe.
Step one was to go spend a month in complete relaxation. Spending a month under the care of the Monks at the Monastery of *****t in the Desert in Abiquiu, NM was precisely what the doctor ordered, and what I needed.
Step two was to come home and gradually re-enter life with a new set of ground rules.
Step three was to begin a journey of therapy that has allowed me to explore the behaviors and life-factors that led me to live in such an unhealthy manner which led to my melt-down.
Step four is to continue the journey.
Step five is to continue the journey.
And so on and so forth.
I am in remission.
Physically and mentally.
I have nothing to be ashamed of.
No one does.
Why deny it?