Of course that threw me into a myriad of emotions, but that part of the story is for another time. (If you would like to chat with me about my transition into the world of mental illness, contact me through our contacts page). My official diagnosis from the counselor came pretty quickly: Anxiety Disorder with a propensity towards depression if untreated for too long.
Now it is eleven years later. Eleven years of counselors leading me through the process of understanding myself. Eleven years of learning my triggers and learning how to recognize when my body is carrying too much tension. Eleven years of learning breathing techniques and other relaxation methods (yoga saves lives!). Eleven years of learning to accept, then cope with, and finally love that this is how my brain works. One of the things that helped me come to this place of acceptance and love was realizing that there are two sides to my mental illness.
I’ve come to realize that, for me, anxiety is my brain going into what I call “rapid fire mode.” There are times when I can feel the thoughts in my brain tumbling one after the other so quickly that I can hardly keep up. This mode happens for many reasons. Most often it comes when I’ve had less than my ideal sleep. But it also can come when I have encroaching deadlines, run across a bad memory trigger, etc. However, the interesting thing I’ve noticed is this mode works differently depending on what chain of thoughts my brain gets a hold of. If I’m in this mode and my brain catches hold of an anxious thought then it is textbook anxiety time for me often resulting in me rocking back and forth in a full on panic attack. However, if my brain is tending towards rapid fire mode and I get a hold of a positive thought – particularly a creative thought – then it is a whole other story. I’ve made three pairs of joggers for my daughter out of scrap material with no pattern in one night on this mode. I’ve scribbled out three or four blog posts in the matter of an hour where it normally takes several hours for me to complete one. I’ve impulsively moved a whole room of furniture and stenciled a wall. I’ve deep cleaned the house top to bottom. Well, you get the idea.
So this is what I mean by my mental illness having two sides: anxiety and inspired. And I believe my experience is not unique. I think many mental disorders come packaged this way, with the positive and negative side of the illness intricately intertwined. ADHD patients have a hard time focusing but can also “super focus”. People with bipolar disorders are often some of the most creative in society. The list goes on.
I would like to pause here and say I realize it is important not to “romanticize” the positive side of mental illness. I am aware that there is a tendency among those who experience these kinds of “highs” in association with their mental illness to shun treatment because they don’t want to lose out on these incredibly positive experiences. We have to remember that for every up there is an equivalent down. I’ve noticed this in my own life. I’ll go through the rush of a creative “rapid fire” session and then suddenly I’ll have a hard time getting out of bed for a week or panic attacks will come more regularly. I’ve had to learn there has to be a focus on balance and moderation. I understand this.
However, I do not understand the practice of ignoring the positive sides of mental disorders completely. I don’t understand why when we define and talk about these disorders we mostly talk about the discomfort they cause those diagnosed. I can’t help but think how powerful it would be to start talking about both sides of the disorder. It would have meant a lot to me to be told, “You have an anxiety disorder which means you are highly sensitive to stressors in your environment and worry from these stressors can get away from you and cause panic. However, you are also highly sensitive to positive influences in your environment as well and there will be times when you experience and almost euphoric joy from this side of your sensitivity.” It would have been nice to have my diagnosis not just be a problem in my life I needed to fix.
Also, I think talking in a more holistic way about mental disorders would help our culture see that people with these diagnosis’ can be contributing members of society. If we as a whole become more educated on the benefits that can come from the up side of these disorders then we can value what individuals with mental illness have to offer instead of only being wary of if they are going to “break down”. How amazing would it be if I could someday walk into my managers office and say, “if you need this project done I have a lot of ideas going on in my head and I can crank this out for you in two days, but then I may need a couple days off to get re-centered and back in control of my anxiety.”
That is the type of world I want to live in. The type where mental illness is not just a negative experience. The type where we can accept and accommodate even the unseen differences between people. The type where we can not only help but also empower those with mental illness. The type where mental illness can be a struggle and a strength.