The recent tragic crash of the Germanwings plane will hopefully result in several significant changes in how airlines do business. It will surely result in increased attention toward mental illness–at least in the short term, until people’s attention spans move on to something else. But I have this nagging sensation that one of the changes will be an increased stigmatization in how people view those who struggle with depression. It will not result, for instance, in more health care plans offering mental health benefits.
UCLA, for example, provides me with dental and vision insurance. However, it only authorizes ten mental health visits a year. Ten. Not even one a month. What mental issues can be addressed in ten visits? I’ll give you a hint–probably no issue that is going to send you to a mental health clinic in the first place.
The insurance plan I had before UCLA didn’t include mental health at all. And this isn’t uncommon. Many insurance plans don’t cover mental health, or, if they do, the price of a visit is often still prohibitively expensive until deductibles have been met. There is a general consensus that mental health problems are not “actual” problems, that dental health maintenance, for example, is more important, more pressing, more real than the maintenance of your mind.
I’m not saying we’re all going to drive planes into the ground without proper mental care, but I am saying that mental health is a serious concern, just as serious (if not more so) as physical health, and the current health insurance system is woefully out of whack.
Beyond this, there is the continued stigma about those who have mental illness. Since mental health isn’t an “actual” problem, it’s generally viewed as a sign of weakness, as a sign of indulgence, as something to be stoically swept under the rug. My Facebook feed is frequently proliferated with conversation about colds and flus and food poisoning, broken bones or impromptu hospital visits, but no one speaks of depression or anxiety. Physical illness is okay to talk about in a way that mental illness is not.
One of the things that had the most impact on me when I started going to Al Anon meetings was the (shocking) discovery that all these beautiful women were struggling–they felt unhappy, out of control, isolated, scared, anxious, unstable. I was genuinely surprised to hear the fears that spiral in my own brain coming out of their mouths. No one talks about that in “real life.”
Because you know what happens when they do? They are told it’s not a real problem.
A recent blog post by LA yoga teacher Hemalayaa Behl met with so much outcry (thank god) that she took it down, embarrassed and contrite, posting an apology in its place. But she offered a story I’ve heard before from countless others, that taking medication for mental issues is inauthentic, that a strong yoga practice should be able to heal all problems.
Would you expect a strong yoga practice to heal a broken arm? Yoga may be able to heal minor imbalances, minor injuries, but it’s not an all-powerful salve. There is only so much deep breathing and deep stretching can do.
I have written about my anxiety before precisely because I want it to be less of an issue, less of a secret, hoping that, if I talk about it, others will feel more comfortable to share their struggles, as well.
But what I haven’t mentioned is that my problem got worse last year, and that I decided to try daily medication. I haven’t written about that because I have been ashamed. I am a strong person; I usually manage to accomplish the things I set out to do without needing bandaids. I don’t want to admit that in the face of certain things, I am powerless.
One of the things I have been working on with my therapist is the ability to tell myself that I don’t have to identity the reasons for my anxiety. I don’t have to criticize myself for having it, for feeling as though it is unjustified and therefore unacceptable. If I am anxious, she tells me, it is justified. It is part of who I am–and beyond that, it is an acceptable part of who I am. Maybe I don’t know why I am anxious, but my body does, my mind does, and I need to trust them that they know what they are doing. By searching for reasons and justifications, I’m just making my own problems worse. But I still feel like I have to justify my anxiety, because I know others are judging me for it.
While I work on managing my anxiety, I have also decided to try medication. Not just Xanax in times of crisis, but regular, daily medication. One of the results of my anxiety has become an inability to sleep. Not an inability to fall asleep at night, but an inability to stay asleep. Anxiety would wake me up early in the morning and prevent me from falling back asleep. There’s no way to take Xanax for that. Taking it before bed won’t help keep me asleep by the time morning comes around. So I figured I needed something regular in my system, because there is nothing like prolonged sleep deprivation for exacerbating an already tightly-wound system.
I tried BuSpar first because I was afraid of an SSRI. I was afraid to get so deeply enmeshed in my brain chemistry. BuSpar has a very short shelf life, so you can take it daily or skip a day, you can cycle on and off with little consequence. Some people take it multiple times a day. I only took it once a day, but appreciated the ability to be able to skip days. Regular consumption of anything makes me a little nervous.
But then I discovered (no thanks to my doctor) that I was allergic to BuSpar. It gave me flu-like symptoms which left me wrecked for over a month. It never occurred to me that a drug for my mind would affect me physically in that way, so it took me time to put two and two together. But once I did, I stopped the BuSpar immediately–something which should not be advised.
As my brain struggled to recalibrate, I was horrified to see who I was without medication. Of course, everything was heightened as my brain adjusted because I had stopped cold turkey (I wasn’t the “normal” me). The anxiety was worse. I was tense and irritable. The world felt like too much to bear. Most amazing to me was how much of a difference a pill could make on how I felt and how I interacted with the world around me.
Which is why I decided to try an SSRI. I’m a little over a month into a new prescription for Lexapro. I’ll be honest–it’s not easy. The transition period for it is much rougher than BuSpar. But my doctor says to give it a couple months to settle in before deciding if I want to stay on it or not. For the time being, the primary symptoms are brain fog and fatigue. But if those clear up, and it helps make me happy, then it is worth it.
I’m not expecting happiness to come in a pill. But I am adjusting to thinking of my brain as a container of chemicals, some of which may be deficient or off balance. I’m reorganizing and restocking. It’s not that I’m “ill” but that something is off balance. Something which therapy can help me deal with, but something that yoga cannot cure. This helps a bit with the self-judgement.
My therapist had me keep an anxiety journal, in which I was instructed to record the thoughts I had when dealing with anxiety. Let me be clear, this is not the “nagging doubt” kind of anxiety. This is not the “take a breath and shake it off” kind of anxiety. Reading the words as I wrote them shocked even me. I’m a crazy person, I thought. Because, yes, when struggling with anxiety, you do feel like a crazy person.
The rational part of my brain knows it is just the anxiety talking, but that’s not going to make the nausea go away, or alleviate the crushing feeling that I’m wrapped in a very tight corset, or slow down the thoughts that are racing around my head a million miles a minute. The rational part of my brain knows that I have no reason to be feeling this way, but this isn’t about being rational.
So when you think that people suffering mental disorders are weak, that they are somehow reluctant to deal with real life, know that they are dealing with real life. They are dealing with real life in stereophonic sound and Technicolor. That’s the problem. It’s all just too big and too massive–and it’s made worse because so many of these people are trying to hide it, trying to function and smile and be natural and normal, because they don’t want to be judged. They don’t want to be fired. They don’t want to admit that they might be in pain. That they might be “defective.”
Well, here I am. I admit it.