I had my first anxiety attack in three months this past Sunday. There was no definite trigger (although I could probably connect it to book-related stress, and a regrettable encounter the evening before), but there doesn’t have to be. Anxiety is one of those things that just is what it is. It exists. It doesn’t need a reason, nor should those of us who have anxiety feel a reason to justify it. I mention my last anxiety attack only because of its interesting timing at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week. You see, I had no idea such a week existed. I know that Mental Health Month happens in May, and only because a friend of mine who runs a blog asked me to contribute a blog post about anxiety, and I was too ashamed to do that.
But I digress. Logging onto Facebook this afternoon, I saw this Fuse post on 13 Celebrities Who Speak Openly About Mental Health, and that is how I learned about the observance. Pete Wentz. Sia. Lady Gaga. Gerard Way. Some of my dearest idols were all either talking about their own struggles with mental health, or encouraging compassion and empathy towards others. Gerard Way, the former front man of one of my favorite high school bands, My Chemical Romance, said “Mental illness used to be a taboo and now it’s not anymore, at least, I feel like it’s not.”
I’m happy he feels that way, although for me, it was only after reading that article, and some of the posts that have been using the hashtag this week #IAmStigmaFree, that I really began to understand and appreciate that. You see, I’ve dealt with mild forms of anxiety and depression for most of my life, but it’s always felt like a dirty little secret. Even though nobody in my family, or in my group of friends, said anything to make me feel that way, it was just something that wasn’t spoken about, and that was enough to turn it into something shameful.
Living day in and day out with feelings you don’t understand, and emotions that don’t always make sense, can be very alienating. You begin to feel like there’s something wrong with you–that you’re broken, or that you were never whole to begin with. And it’s a vicious cycle, trying to hide it out of shame, then feeling more shame and loneliness as a result because you feel like you’re carrying an isolating secret.
Observances like Mental Health Awareness Week are important because they normalize what we’re going through. They provide context, and show us how common these experiences actually are. They reinforce what most of us already know, which is that there isn’t anything wrong with us, and that (contrary to our feelings), we are not week because of these issues, but actually insanely strong for living and thriving with them. I like to boast that my semicolon tattoo is a reference to my book, and not Project Semicolon, but regardless, I am proud to have that mark on my wrist because the same principle applies: I write my own life. My burdens and fears do not. I change my meaning. Anxiety is not my meaning.
While it’s true that anxiety or depression do not overwhelm me on a daily basis, it’s also true that when I have an attack, it feels like that’s all there is to me. But through my own efforts, the support of people around me, and things like Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m able to remember that it’s not. And while my most recent anxiety attack might feel like a setback, I try to think of it less as an alcoholic falling off the wagon and more as a warrior fighting through and winning his next battle.
Why am I finally writing about something that’s always been so difficult for me to write about? For a couple of reasons. First and foremost, my therapist (yes, I have one) suggested I do. She’s been asking me a lot lately why I haven’t written in a while, and my excuse has been that I’m working on publishing the book (which I am, in my defense). Her response was, “what, so you’re not going to write another word until you’re published?” The oxymoron of that was jolting enough to make me realize that I need to continue writing, even without her prescribing it to me.
The second reason is so I can practice what I preach. If there’s nothing to be ashamed of, then why can’t I write about it–especially if my words can make as much of an impact for somebody else as the #IAmStigmaFree posts made for me? It is, indeed, a happy Mental Health Awareness Week for me. I’m happy to be me. I’m happy for the qualities, the struggles, and the blessings that have all shaped who I am. And I’m happy for weeks like this, when the voiceless are finally given a voice that I hope will last far beyond this week.