Picking Up The Pieces: Living Day-To-Day With An Unpredictable, Debilitating Medical Condition

Occasionally, Jabberwockracy will share submissions from guest contributors who want to join the conversation. Today’s contributor, Veronica Shultz, is a sophomore at the Georgia Regents University, studying biology. Anyone looking to submit a letter to the editor for consideration is welcome to do so here.

It was last spring when it happened. I was seriously overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, confused, and generally stressed beyond my limits. I remember being at the end of my wits, just a week after midterms, and turning to a few of my peers for counsel. We were discussing my options, from extra time on campus to reducing my work hours from zero to none, and I brought up the idea of medically withdrawing. That’s when it happened.

“Don’t you actually have to have a serious medical problem to do that?”

It’s probably the hardest thing for me, explaining my “problems” to people I consider normal. I tell them about my struggles with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. My symptoms usually appear as anxiety and panic attacks with major depressive episodes the week before my period, lethargy and irritability the week after, and a few wild card symptoms thrown in along the way. The conversation usually ends with “So you have PMS? Isn’t there like Pamprin for that?” Insert woeful sigh.

Now, I don’t blame people who haven’t experienced a panic attack or depression for misunderstanding. That would be like expecting people who are physically fit and capable to understand the impact of a major physical disability, like paraplegia or a traumatic brain injury. That is why raising awareness for mental and emotional disorders is so important – to gain understanding and be better equipped to support those of us who are struggling.

In the past few months, I’ve started seeing more articles, news stories, even simple images online about the best ways to support friends and family members who were suffering. My personal favorite was a cartoon titled, “If Physical Illnesses Were Treated Like Mental Illnesses.” I encourage you to look it up and ask yourself if you’ve ever said any of those common phrases to someone with a medical condition or a mental disorder.

Even I have doubted the power of an unseen disease. As an extrovert myself, I used to question the existence of social anxiety. Why not just get over it? Why not just start talking to people? Why not just try and be normal? When I had my first panic attack, it became clear. No one would ever choose to be afraid of simple social situations. Same goes for depression, bipolar, post-traumatic stress and any other disorder. If it were possible to simply flip a switch and decide to be better, it would certainly be preferable to the heartache and confusion treated by a plethora of medications that treat symptoms but mask the problems.

So, I’m taking the mask off. Here’s my experience, take from it what you will.

When I first started having depressive symptoms, I had just graduated high school. I spent two whole days in bed, sleeping and crying intermittently. Every now and again, my parents would come to check on me. Two days became four days, and four became six. I became more and more depressed as I stayed in bed, to the point where I would be inexplicably sobbing if I wasn’t asleep. So I slept. Whenever my parents tried to find the root of my problem I only had one answer: I don’t know. “Is something wrong?” I don’t know. “Are you hurt?” I don’t know. “Why are you crying?” I don’t know.

Finally, something just changed. I was able to stay awake longer, crying less. I got up one afternoon, and my parents didn’t even move for fear of scaring me away. As I spent months on end searching for rhyme or reason that would explain the mood swings, the thoughts of suicide, the anxiety and panic attacks, I struggled alone. My father doesn’t believe in mental illness, but believes it to be result of bad parenting. My mother is the type who believes a solid day’s work and a glass of OJ can cure the common cold. My depression just needed some exercise and fresh air. I would be back to better in no time. Weeks passed, my mood swung and I continued dragging myself through the confusion and misery.

The last time I had a depressive episode, my parents didn’t even realize until I was in the depths of my despair. Overwhelmed with confusing thoughts, I literally cried out to my mother for help. Like all loving moms, she knew when the baby was broken, you take it to the doctor and get it fixed. The physician, a general practitioner, explained that it’s hard to pinpoint what the problem is which makes mental illnesses difficult to treat or endure. I almost heard the light bulb click in my mom’s mind.

The way home, we had an honest talk about what it’s like to be overwhelmed with depressive thoughts. “It’s like having a bucket of water dumped on you, but you have no clue where it’s coming from or when it’s going to stop. Even if it slows down, you’re still going to be worried about when it’s going to start pouring again. And that must be very scary.” That must be very scary. Such simple words, but so powerful – alone, confused, sad, overwhelmed, lost. Scared.

Recently, I’ve started seeing a physician who specializes in conditions like mine – most people would call her a shrink, but I call her my psychiatrist. A few months ago, I was started on a course of treatment to alleviate some of the symptoms of PMDD, namely a type of anti-depressants designed to increase the levels of a happy hormone called serotonin. Depending on what kind of physician you see, their methods of treatment vary within their field of expertise. The doctors will prescribe the drugs they’re comfortable giving and expect you to follow up with any issues or concerns. If only it were that easy. Some medications can cause side effects almost as bad as the pre-existing condition. Truly stuck between a rock and a hard place, the patient has to choose whether to treat the symptoms and face the consequences or battle it out au naturel.

Some PMDD patients just live with the symptoms. Others try homeopathic remedies, such as exercising to keep their endorphin levels up. Sooner or later, the depressive fog clears and we begin to pick up the pieces of our lives as we left them. But we are not the same. We are constantly waiting for that bucket to start pouring, checking over our shoulders to see how close the depression is, biting our nails with senseless anxiety.

I’ve learned to put on my game face. The best defense is a strong offense, so I keep myself together by setting boundaries around others until I’m comfortable again. But make no mistake, citizens of Earth, a composed façade can cover the most broken of cracks. So please, don’t tell me you “were worried about me for a few days” or that you “missed me.” And please, oh please, don’t tell me you’re happy I’m “back.” Because I am still worried about me. And if anyone misses me, it would be me! And I can’t possibly be back, because I’m not even put back together. I’m a mess in a million pieces, it seems.

Want to know how to help? Listen to us. We know our boundaries, let us tell you where the line is. Listen for social cues, and be attentive for quiet, nonverbal communications. Listen, and please don’t push too hard. Make us feel safe as we journey back to ourselves. Stick with the same old routines we’ve always had to bring us normalcy. If you ever get seriously worried that we could endanger ourselves or another person, just ask. A simple, “I’m worried. How are you feeling?” could save lives. That said, don’t be afraid to help us when we’re drowning and on the edge of disaster – if you see something, say something. We’re in the process of remembering how we survived this the last time, so please, give us time. And while we shouldn’t stay isolated for days on end, let us go. Give us space. We can’t take root if we’re in a crowded garden, so let us get rooted. We’ll grow in our own time.

Most of all, do not stop loving us. When the world falls apart beneath our feet, we can’t understand how to love anything, even ourselves. So, just love us for our sakes. Love us.