Physically, I am almost obnoxiously healthy. After having a childhood of one illness after another, and after riding public transportation for the last three years, my immune system is so jacked that you could sneeze in my face (but please don’t) in the middle of contagion, and I would not get sick. I have no chronic conditions; heck, I don’t even have allergies. Even when out of shape, I can walk six miles without noticing. I can up and carry a 40-lb bag of fertilizer (or, alternately, a four-year-old) for several blocks without breaking a sweat.
My mental health is a whole nuther story. I’ve had a laundry list of various mental ailments since childhood. To start with, I have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome (no, I don’t swear. I mean, I do swear, but totally intentionally) that only bothers me when I’m tired or stressed, and the tics are severe enough to be physically painful. In fact, my tics are so mild that people who have known me for months are often unaware of them.
Half the time, TS is co-morbid with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (that’s ADHD, of course), which I do not have, and the other half of the time, with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I do. I remember some stereotypical OCD behavior in my childhood: having to line up my shoes, set the TV to channel 1 before turning it off, and pull on my seatbelt 3 times before fastening it (compulsions). I felt that if I did not, something awful would happen. Specifically, I used to think, every night, that the house would burn down (obsession). You know, stuff like that.
As I got older, the compulsive actions subsided. I realized that bad things may or may not happen regardless of whether or not I line up my shoes. However, in my late teens, the obsessions resurfaced, though without the accompanying compulsive actions. Because my mind could never let things drop, I would worry myself sick about minute things, finally giving myself anxiety and depression. I spent years feeling this way, often feeling suicidal. I was consistently given the diagnosis of depression (anxiety is, after all, often a symptom of depression) and prescribed antidepressants, which consistently failed to work, and talk therapy, which never did much. Looking back, I’m convinced that the real problem was an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, which then brought with it depression, but eventually, I gave up on therapy and drugs and finally got to a point of managing things quite well on my own. I wasn’t necessarily happy, but I was not suicidal and I was certainly functioning. I finished college, got into grad school, got married, and was leading a pretty normal life.
Then, about a year ago, the anxiety became unmanageable. A horrible thought that I could not shake occurred to me, and I spent nine days having full-out panic attacks. I couldn’t eat, losing 5 lb. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get out of bed. I realized that I couldn’t do this alone, and finally called a therapist. Therapy helped enough to take the worst out of it, but my therapist continued to advise medication.
Now, I am not Tom Cruise. I do not believe that diet and exercise are the answer to every illness. I am a full supporter of medicine for physical and mental disorders. But I did not want to take that route. I thought that if I paid more attention to my body and took care of myself, I could get myself well. So I tried it. I cut out caffeine. I slept more. I took care of my house. I wrote down to-do lists so I wasn’t obsessing about forgetting something, carrying a notebook with me everywhere. I repeated, mantra-like, that thoughts were just thoughts, even when I couldn’t really believe it.
And, eventually, I got better.
And then, eventually, I got well. I have been anxiety- and depression-free for the last two months – quite possibly the longest that’s happened since my childhood. And, with any luck, I’ll stay here.