I think a lot of us have been feeling like we don’t have much control over our lives in the past week or so.

That was certainly my response, or at least one of them, to what happened on Friday in Connecticut. Along with horror and disgust and profound sadness and nausea.

In the discussions that have come from the aftermath, I’ve been particularly interested (perhaps unsurprisingly) in those about mental illness. Gun control as well–I don’t think that the Second Amendment should extend to the sale and carrying of semi-automatic weapons, but mostly I read articles about gun control, agree, sign some petitions, and think about writing to my government representatives. The mental illness question is one that I think has more depth to it, and is much less clear cut. For personal reasons, as someone with first-hand experience with mental illness, this is what has gotten my attention, in article after article.

There is the article that says, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” There is backlash to that. There are some great articles about living with people who are autistic and the misperception that autism is the same as a mental illness like schizophrenia, and the problem with labeling or fearing any individual based on mental illness or neurodevelopmental disorders.

I am not nearly expert enough to add anything but my personal experience and thoughts to the conversation, and even then, it needs to be much more about the strengths and weaknesses of the mental health system and the things we can do to support people with mental illness. I’ve had to deal with these issues on what can seem like a very superficial level, although they didn’t seem that way to me when I was in a state of panic that lasted over three days and led to an emergency room visit. I just want to go a bit into some of my reflections about the tricky situation of helping someone else with what’s going on inside his or her head.

It is a truth generally under-acknowledged that you never really know what is happening between the ears of another person. Not entirely. Not even (debatably) in moments of stellar communication. Thinking about this can make you feel incredibly lonely, but it’s also a point of commonality: We are all doing the best we can at managing the world as we perceive and, in some ways, create it.

What I remember about this from my toughest period was just how exhausting it was to be in my head. Every single minute, I was dealing with my panic, my breathing, and the tightening in my chest once more. If you managed to distract me for a second or make me laugh at a joke, that was great for that moment, but in the next, I was back where I’d started. It was exhausting for me, and it was even more exhausting, I’m sure, to my friends and family, who were operating under the assumption that my mood and mental state would respond more typically. They assumed I could be cheered up or have my mood lifted more than fleetingly, but it just wasn’t happening that way.

This is the context in which I lived for several weeks. After a couple of hours, the first day, after my first attack, I was ready for it to be over. Knowing that my dad was flying out as soon as he could hardly helped–he wasn’t there then, at that moment, and what would he be able to do even when he was there? When no one can reach into your head and tweak a wire, their mere presence isn’t going to offer a solution, no matter how long they’re willing to hold you while you sob.

My primary care physician didn’t understand the urgency. I explained to her, as calmly as I could, that I felt like I was having a heart attack for hours at a time, that this had not gone away or “reset itself” with sleep, and that I needed help as soon as possible, potentially pharmaceutical help. She figured that I was overreacting and that I would calm down soon, because panic attacks don’t (by themselves) kill people. She quoted a day for an appointment that was several days from the one on which I was calling her. I thanked her, tried to hold out, called again to see if I could move my appointment up, she said no, and I told my father, in as reasonable a voice as I could muster, that it was time to go to the ER.

My panic disorder manifested itself primarily in physical symptoms. I can only imagine if, instead of feeling like I was going to die, I was hearing things that other people didn’t hear or having thoughts I couldn’t control.

I got through the roughest months of my life, months in which I thought more than once that if this was how my life was going to continue, I didn’t want to keep going, because of my incredible family and support network, which included friends, roommates, psychiatrists, and therapists. I was lucky enough to have enough people in my life to be able to spread out my need to constantly be around others or to distract myself from worrying about getting too worried. I would call my dad on the way to work, on my morning break, on my lunch break, after work, and before bed. People gave me music that kept me upbeat, musicals with stories I could get lost in for twenty minutes at least. They suggested new movies and let me sit in their kitchens and sleep on their couches. They heard me say that I needed help and they provided it, even when it wasn’t always convenient. And I got on medication, and I got better, to a place where I can call my parents once a week, spend plenty of time alone, and let myself sit in silence and think about what’s going on in my life.

There is only so much that a doctor can do. There are only so many hours a therapist can see you in a week. There are only so many appointment slots with your psychiatrist, and medications take weeks to work even before you know if they’re right for you. Living with mental illness is 24/7.

I guess what I’m coming to is that we, all of us, need to be there for the people around us who struggle with this. We need to lessen the stigma of admitting these problems and asking for help. We need to try our best to understand and to be there for the people who need our help. And if private individuals can’t do this–and it’s a lot to ask–we need more resources where trained professionals can provide this kind of care.

On an in-patient basis, but not one that’s scary and reminiscent of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” On an out-patient basis, but across a spectrum of problems and levels of severity so that someone who’s first experiencing panic attacks doesn’t get put in a room of people who have been dealing with severe bipolar disorder for decades. Covered by insurance. Provided for the socio-economically disadvantaged. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap but it will help.

One thing: I don’t want or mean to turn the story of what happened in Newtown to a narrative of mental illness and nothing else. I’m not explaining away or justifying what Adam Lanza did. I don’t want to talk about “registering” the mentally ill, I don’t want to take away from the conversation about gun control, and I certainly don’t intend to conflate anything I have ever experienced with anything that anyone in that community is going through or has gone through. This post isn’t about Newtown. I am not a person to talk about that. I’ve spun off from that conversation into the more general question of, “How do we as a nation and as individuals support people who are struggling with mental illness?”

I just know that even a pretty darn unthreatening disorder like panic disorder completely up-ended my life for several months, and that while I lived through a best-case scenario of community support, psychiatric attention, and recovery, and managed to get back on my feet surprisingly quickly, it was a hell of a time getting there.

My thoughts and very best wishes are with the people of Newtown and anyone affected by the Sandy Hook shooting. And when I get home for the holidays, I’m going to hug my parents extra hard. I hope you consider doing the same for the people in your life.

You never know when you’ll need them, or they’ll need you, to help save them from themselves.


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