When I was younger, I thought people with emotional problems (depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, etc) were either crying for attention, weak-willed, or just diagnosed by a quack looking to make a buck. I’m not the only one who thought that either; many believed it then and some still hold to those beliefs. Today, the average person still has has a lot of misconceptions about mental health.
This means that some people find themselves set back on their heels when they learn what scientists know about our brains and bodies today.
What science has learned over the years is: we were dead wrong.
Any time a person has any form of emotional trauma, the brain fundamentally changes. The structure of the brain…how it is wired, changes. Whether the trauma occurs in childhood, our at any time in our life even through adulthood, our brain structure will change. By trauma, I mean:
- abuse (whether physical or emotional, happening to either child or adult)
- extended periods of stress
- extended sleep deprivation (insomnia)
- witness to, victim of, and/or participating in violent events (domestic violence, murder, rape, war, and so on)
- accidents that are traumatic and injurious [car wrecks, falling from great heights, almost drowning, and so on
- scientists have even discovered that women who have children can suffer from PTSD, and it is often more pronounced in mothers of multiples)] (a shorter article on mothers with PTSD here)
Just to name a few.
These changes can cause all manner of brain damage that can result in chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias, and more. Additionally, some people are simply born with either a chemical disorder (such as bipolar) or a neurological (brain) issue such as autism. These are generally genetic in nature.
Because of this, we can not just “will” ourselves into feeling better or having good mental/emotional health. Sometimes, symptoms range from emotions we can not help but act on, to chronic (recurring) insomnia. And all the little feel good articles telling you how to get better sleep rarely mention that if all else fails, seek professional help from a psychiatrist. All the self-help books are pointless, at this juncture. All the positive thinking in the world will not fix those issues. At the very least, positive thinking alone certainly will not. Intervention from counselors and often, psychiatrists for medication, is required.
Over the years, as I met more people with diagnosed neurological and chemical problems, I learned more about those types of people and those issues. I saw those people less and less as weak. Instead, I saw strong people pushing forward with their lives, doing the best they can, with a disability.
Sometimes, we think we really know how we feel about a subject. Then life decides to test that concept. Many of us have found ourselves being OK with other people’s situations, but when faced with the possibility that we are that way too, we ignore it. We avoid it. We deny the very possibility. And then one day, we realize that we’re not as OK with the idea as we thought we were because it all came down to: “it’s OK for everyone else to be that way but not me”. In other words: we don’t really think it’s OK. It means we haven’t accepted this thing as OK and actually still have a stigma we associate with it.
In time, I found myself facing these issues and even acknowledging that I had some symptoms I’ve lived with some my entire life.
I’ve spent my whole life afraid. Of everything. I get through the day. But I wake up and go to bed with feelings of dread, fear, and anxiety. As a child, every family trip to see <insert tourist attraction here> involved me having a meltdown [heights, dark and enclosed spaces (visiting caves or the Battleship Texas), and all I remember of the trip to Disneyworld around age 6 or 7 are the things that terrified me…which was most everything].
At age 28, I realized that it’s not normal to live with fear. I wondered what that much adrenaline must be doing to my body. But I didn’t get help for that, specifically. I saw counselors and discussed all kinds of things. But never that. I was so used to it, I didn’t have a name to put to it, and I had gone on so long without help that that it seemed trivial. The fear was just a part of my life, and I was a functioning adult, so it didn’t seem like something to examine.
Add to that: around the same time, I realized that if I was a child in today’s world, I would have been sent for testing and therapy as I preferred to play alone. It never occurred to me to play with other children in school. My first friend at school was in 2nd grade and that happened only because another girl reached out to me. Note: I spent 2 years in pre-school, before going to kindergarten.
In elementary school, when I started wanting friends, I remember my mom explaining how to make friends when I asked, “how?”. And I tried it. I’d walk up to another kid and ask if they had brothers or sisters, what games they liked to play, if they had pets…and eventually ran out of questions and stood there and stared at them. Then wandered off, knowing I’d done something wrong but with no clue what it was that I had done wrong. (I probably sounded like I was interrogating them, and my lack of range of facial expression probably didn’t help either.)
Move forward about 10 years later from those realizations. I have twins. They are babies…less than age 2. From what I’ve read from other parents, having children does push many individuals into self-realization. I thought I was a fairly self-actualized person, until I had the twins.
I realized I had anxiety issues. Six months after the kids were weaned and sleeping through the night after 14 months of nursing, I wasn’t. Also, every day, all I saw were worst-case, death-inducing scenarios, whether I was at work, driving, or at home, regarding any day-to-day issue. The fear I grew up with was greatly magnified by the “mom” rewiring of my biology. I saw a counselor and psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Eventually, I began to suspect my son was autistic (a nursing baby that doesn’t make eye contact with it’s mother is a dead giveaway).
Then I saw footage of three adults looking at a camera saying, “you can’t tell by looking at us, but we are autistic”. (I still can’t find that footage from nearly 3 years ago.) When I saw that footage, something inside me clicked. I began to research autism, especially high-functioning autism. Everyone but my mother thought I was being a hypochondriac (to be fair, I can be). My mother said, “this answers every question I had about you as a child”. My husband did not believe me until the day a specialist told us that she suspected our son was autistic and should get testing, said autism is often genetic, and asked if anyone else in our family was autistic. I will never forget the look on my husband’s face. (And yes, my son was diagnosed as autistic. We’re lucky, because he’s high functioning and loves hugs from his parents and wants to play with us, he just doesn’t always know how.)
April 15, 2013, at the age of 39, I was diagnosed as a high-functioning autistic. I am “on the spectrum” (as autism manifests a wide variety of ways, across a broad spectrum but with specific symptoms). At age 40, with four year old twins, I am a high-functioning autistic with general anxiety disorder (as one doctor said, anxiety is “part and parcel” for people on the spectrum, more so for high-functioning since we’re so very aware of our social shortcomings). I also cope with depression, which I realize I’ve also grown up with, and has been exacerbated by raising twins (extended sleep deprivation, being an introvert with 2 little people that want me all the time, the stress of acting “normal” around my kids so as to not scar them, job/career/identity challenges, and working a full-time job while running a freelance business on the side…all while being “MOM”).
That said, most people don’t believe me and/or are surprised to learn I’m on the spectrum. Not just because most people don’t know the many ways autism manifests, but because I’ve spent a lifetime consciously learning to interact with others and I now hide my disability well.
Also, high-functioning female autistics are generally harder to diagnose because we mimic other people’s mannerisms and behaviors due to our innate desire to communicate and be social. (In the 6th grade, I realized I was mimicking others and that that is not socially acceptable. It’s taken all the years since to learn to not do it, although it’s still hard not to unconsciously fall into that pattern of mimicking other people’s verbal and physical mannerisms). My doctor said I’ve already done the work on my own that most people have to go to therapy for after diagnosis; so you could say I’m a stealth autistic.
That said, I work with a psychiatrist, a counselor, and have just scheduled an appointment with a type of counselor called a cognitive therapist (that, from what I have read, is far more effective at helping you rewire your brain that standard counseling. The other counseling is for getting things out in the open and exploring feelings and behaviors. Cognitive therapy has tools to help fix the broken feelings and behaviors.)
So no: people with emotional/mental problems aren’t whiners or “just looking for attention”. I always show up on tests as a Type A person who pushes for the best in myself, others, and everything I do. I am a “go getter”. For those that follow the Myers-Briggs, I am INTJ. But I’ve spent most of my life consciously learning to integrate with society. As a result, I’ve always been a top performer in jobs and academically. Even in service industry jobs, I became the person that all the high maintenance customers were sent to (many of them demanded to work with me too).
I share what I have learned not to gain attention, but to help those that are on the fence regarding their own neurological and chemical problems, and their family and friends that do not understand them. I’ve learned, and am still learning, that our minds are malleable and are shaped by our life events and genetics. Sometimes, we have no choice in the direction our brains point us and all we can do is learn to cope.
My sincerest desire is to help those in need and those individuals trying to understand family and friends dealing with these very issues. I and many others cope with these issues every day. You can’t tell just by looking at us. Most of us have learned to hide our disabilities. But I don’t want to anymore. I want to be an advocate for those that need help, for those afraid to seek help, for those afraid to admit to themselves and those they love what they really are. This is not an easy path. But it is walkable and you can do it too.