Monday, May 9, 2016

A Personal Blog in Honor of Mental Health Awareness Month

I'm writing this in the hopes that this will help someone, but it is personal and less related to teaching than normal. So I thought I'd warn you if that is not for you. I have several teaching-focused posts coming up after this one.

This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. I thought about writing a post like this last year, but as much as I believe it is the right thing to do, it is sort of terrifying to reveal myself and leave myself vulnerable. The point of the month is to help destigmatize mental health issues as well as help those who are suffering find comfort and companionship in knowing they are not alone, though, and perhaps after enough of these posts and discussions, mental health and treatment will be honored, and sharing these stories will feel necessary and respectable.

This morning I awoke with a more immediate reminder of the need for these discussions. The weight of the oncoming day felt like it was centered on my chest and just sitting up and leaving my bed was a small struggle. I fight this struggle at least monthly; sometimes waking up and facing the world is a burden.

I have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) and at least once a month my hormones push me into depression and anxiety. It's under control; there are several hormonal treatments for the disorder, and I am on a regimen that keeps me from suffering the extreme lows that I am prone to when I am not taking anything.

My PMDD first developed around a decade ago, when (fortunately for me) there was a name for it (a relatively new development) and a new attempt to treat PMDD directly (hormonally) instead of just the symptoms (depression and anxiety medicines, which only sort of help it, since they aren't treating the source). I started developing some physical symptoms (extremely bad acne that wasn't there when I was younger) and then the emotional symptoms started. They began with just an inability to shake my anxiety about my job (I was working in a school that was almost entirely the opposite of everything I believe in concerning education) and an overriding sense of unease and unhappiness. I did my best to work through these feelings; it wasn't the first time in my life I've been depressed--I've always been different than my peers and was ostracized from third grade through sixth. That experience informed my self-perception, which meant a long, slow process of accepting myself and eventually loving myself and that kind of growth is emotionally exhausting and involves almost constant setbacks.

But my anxiety didn't work itself out. Instead, it grew, inflated, and became unbearable at times. I would sit with my family and a sudden, intense panic would grip me, making me literally gasp for breath. I did my best to hide it from them; I usually retreated to a different part of the house and suffered the wave of panic and depression and sobbed into a pillow so they wouldn't hear. I still didn't do anything about it, preferring to hide it from my husband and avoid the doctor.

This continued for almost a year, until a wave hit me at work, and I found myself unable to cope with the oncoming day. Generally I am uncomfortable showing emotion in public (reference the long-term ostracism above), and being at work had kept my emotions at bay. Suddenly I couldn't control myself at work either, and it was this, the inability to function at work, that convinced me that I wasn't getting better and needed to contact a doctor.

Since my diagnosis, I have researched PMDD. The disorder is still being defined, and research is ongoing, though there is some level of dismissal due to its link to menstruation. It has been discovered to be genetically inherited, which makes sense: both my aunt and my grandmother had uncontrollable depressions that developed in their late 20s and both had committed suicide by the age of 32. My family and I now believe their symptoms and behavior indicate the same disorder, and that they would still be alive if modern treatments had been available to them.

I am not completely free of depression. There are days like today, when leaving my house seems like a Herculean task. But I am mostly free.

I think my disorder makes me a better teacher, much as I believe my past ostracism makes me a better teacher. I can better love my students, accept them no matter who or what they want to be, and sympathize with them when depression or strong emotions are making them behave in a way that seems erratic and irrational from the outside. Someone who has not experienced depression has a hard time understanding the difficulty just getting up and functioning can be, and how easy it is to be so overwhelmed by duties and obligations that you simply shut down. When a student exhibits avoidance behavior, I am more likely to reach out to the student with understanding and am willing to walk the student through recovery in my class.

Luckily I love my job, so even on days when I feel like I can't face anything, I get up and go to work, and generally feel much better once the students are there. Today I got a card from a student that was personal and heart-felt and it made my day. It reminds me that it's always worth coming to school, because it matters to my students.

So this week, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I'm going to share my story with my students, and maybe help one or two just by modeling the acceptance I want them to show for themselves, strengths, struggles, and all.