My turn. (May is National Mental Health Awareness Month)

I’m not sure if it was the windowless dark room, the large neon-colored flowers adorning the walls, or a subconscious thought. What ever it was, that it triggered my first panic attack. I was nine.

We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and suddenly, out of nowhere, I needed to run. I walked quickly to the exit because running would have drawn attention to the situation. Thank goodness my older sister came after me to find out what the heck was wrong. We were on the verge of shoveling copious amounts of tacos, burritos and enchiladas into our mouths, interruptions were not welcome. Not exaggerating – I come from a large family; therefore, securing your fair share of food or any other staple necessary to live, was a blood sport.

I sat on a chair with my sister looking at me, waiting for an explanation why I left the table in such a hurry. She’d have to wait because I didn’t know why I panicked.  Safe to say, we avoided restaurants for some time after that. Especially, dark, windowless Mexican restaurants.

I self-diagnosed. Claustrophobia. My new best friend.

Fast forward to adulthood. Sure, I could avoid dark, small places. How difficult can that be? Over time, I devised a strategy that works for me. Plan ahead. Research places and activities before visiting. Simple, with some minor speed bumps along the way…

Spa day? No problem – what can go wrong at a place where the sole purpose is to lose yourself in a peaceful, aromatic, candle-lit environment. Pure Serenity. Wrong! My husband and I were staying at the Ritz Carlton for the weekend and part of this getaway was a luxurious spa afternoon. We were ready and wrapped in our fluffy Egyptian-cotton bath robes. The attendant kindly asks us to follow her to the elevator. WHAT?! (I say to myself, sensing doom) “Oh, our spa is located 2 floors below so it’s very private and exclusive”, she explains to us. Okay, I can do this – for goodness sake, it’s a spa. There I was, peeled like a banana, lying face down on the table. But then I start to think (which is usually when most of my problems begin), “I’m 2 floors below, there are no windows, the room is dark, chime sounds are coming from somewhere”. “What if…?” I suddenly sit upright like a Jack in the Box toy. My eyes become big as bagels. Quickly grabbing the towel.  The masseuse softly asks, “is something wrong, are you okay?”, but in her mind, she’s probably thinking this chick is “cuckoo for cocoa puffs”. I settled down and endured the massage. I survived.

Subways? Oh, hell no.

The London Underground aka The Tube. Both of these names are BIG RED FLAGS to a claustrophobic. I was on a trip with my mother-in-law. She’s an avid traveler and I certainly couldn’t share my anxiety thoughts with her – she’d think, “this cream puff is married to my only son, ugh”. I had no choice. I gathered my strength, bought the tickets, boarded the train, and off we went. Exiting at Parliament square to begin our sightseeing extravaganza. I survived.

Next test. New York City subway. This time, I was traveling with my husband and kids. “Let’s ride the subway!”. Oh Lord, not again. I couldn’t show my kids how terrified I was at the thought of getting on the subway. Not because it’s dirty or because we could get robbed. Rather, because I’d be shoved into a sardine can with hundreds of New Yorkers. I stood on the platform, convincing myself to board. After all, I was able to ride the London Underground. Okay, let’s go, easy peasy. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded and we were able to sit down. The train pulls away from the station. No big deal. We stop a couple of times to pick up a few people. I start to relax. Wow, I’m riding the New York subway, good job! I spoke too soon. Evidently, the storm from the night before had flooded the station we were approaching. The train stops, and does so between station platforms. Not only am I on this closed subway train, the train is surrounded by walls on both sides! I start to think. “What if…?” I begin to look around and realize, I’m going to die, right here in this sardine can. I start to breathe deeply and calm myself with positive thoughts. The train begins to move after a 15 minute delay. We exit near Wall Street and become full-fledged tourists. I survived.

Once in a while, small bits of anxiety crop up during claustrophobic situations. But not nearly as frequent or intense as before. Think positive thoughts and breathe deeply. Last, but not least, I’ve put the kibosh on the “what if’s…”.

The feeling of fight or flight, fear, worry, nervousness, or unease are real to the person experiencing them; however, the danger or pending doom, may not be real. Was I able to leave the Mexican restaurant easily? Yes. Was I trapped or unable to breathe while riding the London Underground? No. Did the New York subway train eventually move and was I able to exit? Yes. I survived and lived to tell the tale (drama intended).

(May is National Mental Health Awareness Month) A personal story from someone…

willing to share in order to bring awareness to Mental Illness – and I am grateful.

I grew up getting to know the term ‘mental illness’ and what it entails. When I was younger, I learned that it isn’t just sadness, anger, or an extreme of any one feeling. To me, mental illness is like any other illness, a selfish thief who robs people of life’s opportunities, often more than once, and can even decide to stay indefinitely.

My uncle suffered from an impulse control disorder and chronic depression. My dad suffered through bipolar disorder and heavily self-medicated through alcohol abuse. When I was in high school, I quickly learned that my best friend, my own sister, too, had been silently suffering from bipolar disorder.

Mental illness is not easy to write about, especially when it involves the people you care most about. It isn’t easy to write about because mental illness can be violent, even when it is silent. Because of this, it has the ability to destroy relationships between those who cannot convey and those who cannot understand.

I struggled for years trying to understand and forgive the verbal, physical, and emotional hurt my loved ones with mental illness, namely bipolar disorder, inflicted around me. I came to truly hate them before I realized it was not them who I hated, but their mental illness. I’ve watched my sister struggle through cyclical months of severe depression and mania, constantly battling anxiety. I tried, but I could never truly resonate the everyday fight it takes (on top of hurdling over life’s random obstacles) to conquer life.

Personally, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college when I developed acute and then chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and anxiety as a result of a sexual assault. There were days where I felt brave to get out of bed, to eat, shower, go outside – whatever it took to be or feel human. I felt like an ashamed, lazy, misunderstood, frustrated, and unable ghost. This is what mental illness does to people and it’s very real. Suddenly, I intimately understood my sister’s anxiety, my dad’s anger, my uncle’s depression.

Although I feel that mental illness has joined the social conversation more than not in my generation, it still carries a stigma. This stigma is in part due to the difficulty of obtaining tangible evidence and in part due to the silence of mental illness. Mental illness marginalizes its victims and medical health is not effective for the reasons prior stated. This is particularly true for college students who face the pressures of competitive academics and ‘10-year plan’ trajectories. My generation was built for the fast-track; but, many of us are silently suffering from mental illness, like depression and anxiety, out of fear of failing to keep up.

For those who have experienced, are struggling with, or unfortunately may encounter mental illness, I take my advice from my older sister who always reminds me “to be patient with yourself”. Mental illness can be unforgiving; but, there is control in knowing you can forgive yourself every time and start again.


Up Close and Personal (May is National Mental Health Awareness Month)

Yes, my family has been affected by mental illness and I am writing about it today. My brother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia before passing away in 1995. This is a difficult topic to write about because it is emotional, complex and complicated. I will try to describe Raymond’s story with the detail and respect he deserves.

Raymond and I shared an apartment about the same time the disease began to take hold. In other words, his paranoid episodes were becoming frequent and more intense. I would hear him talking to himself in his room, and at times I’d hear him become agitated and angry. On a few occasions, I became annoyed and impatient with him which usually resulted in us yelling at each other and me leaving the apartment. Although these times were frightening to me, I never feared him because I knew in my heart he wouldn’t hurt me.  These episodes caused me to be anxious as they didn’t make sense nor was I able to control them. Can you imagine the fear he felt?

Months later, my parents urged him to move in with them. My mother had a special bond with Raymond. Perhaps she felt his pain as only a mother could. The next paragraph, written by my sister, describes the turning point that ultimately brought him the help he needed.

The most difficult time I remember was when Raymond was left home alone while the rest of the family went to my sister’s house for Easter. When we returned home later that evening, my father told us the neighbors had called the police because they felt Raymond’s behavior that afternoon was troubling to the children who lived in the apartment complex. The neighbors knew him and told the police he was not a danger but was mentally unstable. The police initially brought him to the station, then transferred him to a facility in Downey, California, for a 5150 psychiatric hold.  I wanted to be with my brother. When I tried to gather all his necessary belongings, I came across a notebook he kept in his dresser. I was not able to contain the emotions I was feeling when reading through his notes. The notes had many obscure writings and scribbles – I could see, feel and live through some of the pain he must have felt during his torturous mental anguish. He drew stick figures of him calling out for help wanting to escape. That was the first time I fully understood the suffering he endured.

As painful as the series of events described above may have been, it was a blessing and an answer to our prayers because he was finally able to get professional help and medication for his schizophrenia.

Raymond continued to experience small episodes of paranoia, and in 1989, after stabilizing somewhat, I asked him to be in my wedding – I was happy and proud to have him be a part of that special day.

Mental illness is a disease that comes in many forms and crosses all boundaries. My brother was a beautiful, generous and kind person. He did not choose this disease and I will not allow his memory to be defined by it.