Physical illness vs mental illness?

*This piece will discuss my personal experience with mental illness (anxiety, depression, bulimia, ptsd, bpd) versus physical illness (cancer). Both mental and physical illness vary person to person. Illness is not all or nothing – people experience it differently. With that being said, this post is not to invalidate anyone’s circumstances or struggles. I am simply voicing my own personal experience on how mental illness continues to be treated differently than physical illness.*

Before I dive into the depths of my personal encounter with various illnesses, I think it is important to touch on the aspect of health. We all have health. We all have physical health (our body) and we all have mental health (our mind, thoughts, emotions). Only when our health becomes jeopardized, we may develop illness. If our physical health is poor, we can develop physical illness. If our mental health is poor, we may develop mental illness. However, we all have health.

Mental illness refers to severe and long-lasting impairment and distress of our mind. This may result in extreme emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

Physical illness refers to severe and long-lasting impairment and distress of our physical body. This may result in physical diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, MS, CP etc.

Mental illness is often invisible to the outside world. By invisible, I mean that it is often happening inside of our head. We may struggle with dark thoughts, crippling anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, etc. We may look like we’re happy, yet we’re actually crumbling. However, physical illness is often visible by the whole world. If we have cancer, we may have lost all of our hair. If we have CP or MS, we may be in a wheelchair or using mechanisms to help us walk. Yes, all illnesses profoundly impact our lives. But, the ominous feeling of our illness being invisible to the outside world makes us feel like we are all alone.

Despite numerous campaigns that bring awareness to mental illness, our society is still conditioned to empathize with those struggling with physical illness, whereas the severity of mental illness continues to be under-looked. When I was going through chemotherapy in 2014, people understood if I couldn’t get out of bed or go to social events. I was reassured that it was completely okay to sleep for 16 hours a day. It was even suggested. I was flooded with love, support and flowers. However, when my anxiety was overwhelming or my depression wouldn’t allow me to get out of bed, I was viewed as lazy, overreacting and attention-seeking. I often felt like I was so damn alone because my feelings were swept under the rug. All I really needed was someone to reassure me. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay to listen to what I need – just as I would if I was battling a physical illness. Unfortunately, feeling profound shame and guilt for having mental illness led me to talk about it less and less. I pushed it away and pretended that I was okay when in reality, I was dying inside.

Not only is mental illness underlooked, it is often invalidated. Nothing feels worse than finally opening up to someone (“I can’t shake this sadness”), and getting the reply of (“Don’t worry, everyone has those days!”). It invalidates our struggles. It makes us feel as though our extreme emotions and distressing thoughts are normal. Because of this, many people do not reach out and receive the help that they desperately need. Yet, when someone says, “Ow, my stomach really hurts today. I feel like I might be sick”, people reply with, “Oh no! You poor thing. You should go home and rest”. We discredit mental illness with our words and behaviours (without even fully acknowledging it).

Furthermore, physical illness is regarded as life-threatening. The majority of people are horrified by the thought of getting diagnosed with cancer. Yes, cancer is a terrible, life-threatening disease, just as many mental illnesses are. Borderline personality disorder often coincides with severe self-harm behaviours. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an abnormally low body weight due to food restriction. As we can see, mental illnesses are just as life-threatening and serious as physical illnesses. However, mental illness continues to be viewed as attention-seeking or selfish. “People have it a lot worse than you.” “Why are you sad? You have every reason to be happy!” “I don’t understand; you have nothing to be scared about.” These sentences should never be a response to someone battling mental illness, just as they would never be said to someone fighting a physical illness.

Additionally, many of us fail to realize that mental illness and physical illness are often interconnected. Individuals with physical illness are more likely to develop mental illness. For example, many people battling cancer are diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Our physical state affects our mental state. We feel grief and loss of innocence and normality. In addition, individuals with mental illness (who do not receive the help they need) are more likely to develop a physical illness. For example, some people struggling with mental illness abuse drugs and alcohol. These substances can significantly impact our physical health. This shows us how interrelated human illness is.

For those who have read this entire post and still fail to see my argument, remind yourself that mental illness is actually an illness of our body. Mental illness is a disease of the brain. As we learned in childhood, the brain is an organ of our body. So, just like we may develop a disease of the lungs, thyroid, heart, etc., the brain may become diseased. You can call it a physical illness if you’d like, as our brain is tangible and concrete, just like all of our other organs.

This gives us something to think about the next time we feel as though our mental illness isn’t that serious. Spoiler alert: it is, and it requires professional help.

My hope is that one day society will view physical illness and mental illness as equally important. They both significantly impact our lives. They are both serious and require attention. Just because mental illness is invisible doesn’t mean it has to stay invisible. Please reach out. You do not have to struggle alone.

Keep on shining,

Emily

 

Left picture: September 2014. One day after chemotherapy. One glance and you can see how sick I look. Oh, the sympathy I received from having cancer…….

Right picture: December 2016. We see a bright smile so we think, she’s happy! She’s doing great! Yet, I was suicidal, abusing alcohol and self-harming.  I was struggling to stay afloat. I was waiting for the day it would all end.

 

I would have missed out on so much

The hurt I’m feeling nobody can see. I use a smile to cover it up. I cry myself to sleep each night in hopes that I will not wake up. But that doesn’t matter because nobody knows. Nobody will ever know the true pain I’m feeling. The ache in the heart and water that fills my eyes. Each morning I wake up miserable and can’t help but wonder why I’m still here. I don’t belong here. Nobody truly knows who I am and what I want from life; to be honest, I don’t either. I’m lost in this huge space, this world of noise, with no direction of where to go. I’m broken inside to many tiny pieces that do not have the ability to be put back together. I’m the deep cracks built within a rock. No matter how hard anyone tries, the flaws just won’t go away. Nothing will change me. No one can. Not even I. I have become something I am stranger to. Each day I feel myself die inside a little more. The days fly by and nothing changes. I’m still broken and hurt. But one day I know it will all stop. I’ll be free and finally experience true happiness.

-2011

When I read this piece, I can feel my heart ache. I can still remember the excruciating pain that I felt. But before I begin, I want to clarify what I meant by “free and finally experience true happiness”. I wasn’t talking about the butterflies, rainbows and flowers kind of happiness. I wasn’t imagining the happiness that I’ve finally found 6 years later. I was imagining the freedom and happiness of no longer being on the Earth. I was envisioning that day that I finally gave in and ended my life.

This pains me. I cannot believe that I was so hopeless at age 17. I hadn’t went to prom yet, I hadn’t graduated from high school yet. I hadn’t… I hadn’t…. I hadn’t.

But, in my mind, I had experienced enough. I didn’t think that things would ever get better. I had been struggling with anxiety for four years. I had developed bulimia nervosa. I began to self-harm. I had lost a friend to suicide. I had severe depression – not yet recognized by the outside world. I gave up thinking about true happiness as I was consumed by sadness and pain. My brain saw a tragic ending to my story and with that, came the happiness that I was so desperately seeking.

This is where I want to touch on the topic of teenage depression. As many of you know, teenagers are very susceptible to suicide. Why? Well, the teenage brain is not fully developed. They lack the development of the prefrontal cortex and executive function. This means that they struggle with decision making, staying rational and seeing beyond the intense emotions that they feel.. This helps explain why teenagers are impulsive and ‘emotional’. Teenagers often view their situation as ‘the end of the world’ because in their brain, they cannot see things ever getting better. This is not to minimize what they are going through. Their feelings are valid, but their interpretations of the duration of sadness and pain is exaggerated.

The reason that I touch on this topic is because I lived this. I had tunnel vision. I thought that the pain that I was feeling would last for the rest of my life. And, I couldn’t live like that. I thought that I would have to end my life in order to feel happiness.

But, no. We may feel as though things will never getting better… that we will always be sad. We will never get better. We will never get over heartbreak. We will never live without a cloud of despair. But, that just isn’t true. We can overcome, and we can thrive.

For any of you who feel like you cannot continue on, please know that there is so much support and love out there for you. I’m not saying that things will be easy and that there is a quick fix, but recovery and happiness is possible. You do not have to suffer alone. You do not have to go through your hardship by yourself. Please reach out and ask for help.

If I hadn’t reached out, I would not be here today. I would not have found a job that I love. I would not have experienced graduating from University, going to Prom, smiling at my reflection in the mirror, etc. I would not have met my best friends. I would not have seen the true beauty in living. I would have missed out on so much. Things are not over for you. Things are just beginning.

Keep on shining,

Emily

Left picture: Living on the edge until I finally gave in to my urges. 2011.

Right picture: Recovering and learning to be in love with the life that I have created. 2017.

How PTSD has crippled my entire world

In university, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was one of the many psychological disorders that intrigued me. I couldn’t read enough research about the ruthless impact trauma has on our emotions and our behaviour. It fascinated me how our brains and neurochemistry could completely change due to trauma.

However… no amount of reading and research could help me when I needed it the most – when I was forever changed by PTSD.

If you’re reading this, you may not even know what PTSD is and that is absolutely okay. In some ways, I wish that I didn’t know what it was either. I wish that I was still caught up reading and reading about it, not living with it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating mental illness that affects some us after exposure to trauma. Despite contrary belief, PTSD does not only impact soldiers, but average human beings as well. Any one who has experienced colossal trauma (natural disaster, abuse, neglect, life-threatening illness or car accident) is at risk of developing PTSD. And, unfortunately, I was one of those “average human beings” who was diagnosed with PTSD.

Side note: *My list of trauma is not a definitive. *

I was officially diagnosed in mid-January 2017 after months and months of severe, incapacitating symptoms. I am far… far… f a r from recovered, but I felt obliged to share my experience with PTSD as it is often overlooked. Few people know what PTSD is and the excruciating impact it can have on it’s victims.

Like all disorders, PTSD manifests differently person to person. My experience may be different from yours and that is okay. All of our experiences are valid.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has crippled me with:

Emotional numbness

This began shortly after I was removed from the abusive relationship that I found myself in. I returned home… well maybe, my body did… my mind was somewhere else. I couldn’t feel anything. My body shut down. I couldn’t process what the hell just happened. I couldn’t even remember what had happened… my brain wouldn’t let me. I felt absolutely nothing. I couldn’t remember words. I had no thoughts. I simply couldn’t function. I spent days on end staring blankly at the wall, unable to do much at all. I felt completely gone. So far gone without return. This emotional numbness carried on for a couple of days. I felt as though he had taken my soul from me. I felt like nothing.

As time went on, I was able to feel again. Like a light switch, I went from numb to frantic. For days, I felt nothing and now I was feeling absolutely everything. I continue to have days where the pain takes over and I shut down. Gone, yet again. Each time, wondering how much longer things will be this way.

Avoidance and Isolation

At around the same time that I became emotionally numb, I began to isolate myself. If you know me personally, you know that I am an extreme extrovert. I love parties, social gatherings and meeting new people. However, something in me changed. I began to fear people – even those I have known for a very long time. I questioned everyone’s motives and intentions. I began to label others as bad – inherently evil. He became everything that I saw. I saw negative qualities in others that may not have existed at all. My memory of him and his malevolence flooded my life. I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t want to see anyone. I just couldn’t. I wouldn’t let myself.

After much persuasion from my family and my therapist, I pushed myself to go out – but not without significant anxiety. I flinched walking past men on the streets. I could literally feel my skin crawl. I held my breath as I walked past strangers afraid of what they may do. I was conditioned to expect violence.

Leaving the house was exhausting. I was sore physically and mentally. However, with exposure, things have gotten much easier; though I still isolation myself more than your average person. I rarely attend parties or social gatherings anymore. The way that I see it is if I don’t interact with humans, no one can hurt me. And no, I’m not being rude, I am protecting myself. I’m working on rebuilding my self-esteem, self-love and self-acceptance. Please give me time.

Hypervigilance

I honestly didn’t know what hypervigilance meant until I was diagnosed with PTSD. For me, hypervigilance is constantly being on edge. When I’m out and about alone, I’m continuously checking over my shoulders. It’s like living life through a constant stream of anxiety. It’s pure torture and I despise it.

Negative beliefs about the world

All men are evil.

All men are abusive.

All men are incapable of empathy and love.

All men are to be feared.

People are inherently bad.

Our world is corrupt.

Trust me, I never used to feel this way – but it’s what trauma can do to a person. It can change your whole perspective of the world – in the blink of an eye.

Negative feelings towards self

Often times, my mind decides to replay all of the awful things he said to me. After hearing these words relentlessly, you start to believe them.

You deserved this.

You let this happen.

Maybe if you didn’t…

Maybe if you would have…

You’re stupid.

You’re disgusting.

You’re worthless.

Nightmares

I am subjected to graphic night terrors that throw me into full fledged panic. They are often painful scenes that I have been desperately trying to forget. Some are real memories and occurrences while others are just a fabrication made by my mind – both equally agonizing.  I usually wake up crying in a drenching sweat. I have to check my surroundings around 20 times before I can finally allow myself to relax. I have to tell myself that I am safe and that I am okay. I think the most treacherous thing about my nightmares is that every single night I fight the urge to sleep as I am so terrified of what memory will come back to haunt me. Thankfully, as of now, I’m down to about two nightmares a week. This is major progress as they used to be a nightly occurrence.

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are utterly crippling as they take you by surprise and bring you right back to the traumatic moment in seconds. You don’t know when they will creep up on you; you can’t always know all of your triggers. My flashbacks come in hot and heavy distorting my reality and suffocating me.

I can still remember the nights he abused me perfectly. I can remember the clothes I was wearing the nights he hit me. I can remember the exact locations in our apartment. I remember the exact words and phrases I cried as I begged him to stop. I can remember the sound of my skull striking the floor. I can remember the pure horror. Sometimes these sounds and images flood my mind and I can’t escape them… feeling as though I am right back there. Helpless.

Disgust in Intimacy

The thought of another human touching my skin makes me queasy. No, thank you.

Hopelessness

Sometimes it feels as though things will never get better. That things will forever be this way and I will never be free. It’s as if this excruciating pain will cloak me for the rest of my life. I hope that one day it will finally leave me alone, but sometimes it feels like that day will never come. And, I have to accept that.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a happy ending to this post. Most of the time, positive and encouraging words flow out of me like a waterfall. But, nothing positive has come out of having PTSD.

Maybe still being here to be able to write this article is enough.

Keep on shining.

Emily

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Bruised, but healing. [Photo taken August 2016]