[To close out Mental Health Awareness Month, we at GrokNation are proud to present guest writer and FoM (Friend of Mayim) Samantha Taylor – who previously wrote about the perks of being in a family of geeks – who shares her experiences becoming aware of mental illness in others, and coping with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in her own family. About the process of writing this article, Samantha notes: “I’d like to thank Mayim for encouraging me to write this post. She has always been a source of knowledge and guidance for me as a mother and a friend.” Stay tuned to the end for resources and additional information. – GN Editors]
I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never had a panic attack, or suffered from depression. I’ve never had an eating disorder or experienced more than run-of-the mill anxiety. But I’ve seen friends and family members suffer with mental illness, and while I tried to help them, it was really difficult for me to understand because I had no first-person experience with it.
When I was in middle school, I had a friend who did gymnastics. She was incredibly talented and had the potential to go really far. Unfortunately, she suffered from anorexia. One day my Mom took me to visit her in the hospital. She was skin and bones, and she was doing push-ups on the floor, with an IV duct taped to her arm. That image has never left my brain. As a young kid, I just couldn’t understand it. Couldn’t she just look in the mirror and see herself? “She’s so thin, why is she dieting?” I wanted to say. I heard adults saying that she was under too much pressure from her coaches. Sadly, twenty years later, she still suffers from eating disorders.
My first cousin was a spunky, smart, talented kid, but he struggled with depression. His family worried about him; my aunt took him to see psychologists and psychiatrists in his teen years. When she talked to me about his condition at the time, I didn’t really understand: He seemed to have everything going for him: his band was about to go on tour, he had lots of friends. I though he was just being a dramatic teenager, looking for attention. Once he turned 18 and, according to the law, became an adult, doctors couldn’t talk to my aunt about her son because legally, he was an adult. She tried everything she could to encourage him to get help and take medication to manage his symptoms. He wouldn’t. When he was 21, he bought a gun. Three weeks later, he shot and killed himself. I still didn’t identify it as mental illness.
But when my son was diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) this past month, it finally started to make sense.
Emotionally speaking, my son has exhibited some red-flag behavior for years. He’s 11 now, but this past year, it seemed to be getting worse. A teacher/administrator at his school called me, concerned; I called our pediatrician, who referred me to a child psychiatrist. After several hours of time with my husband, my son and me, she reached a diagnosis. She recommended a prescription and cognitive behavioral therapy. She told us it would be a few weeks before we saw a change in his behavior.
When we got home from the psychiatrist appointment, I asked my son to come sit with me on the couch. I asked him if he knew what the diagnosis meant. He didn’t, so I explained it to him in words he could understand. I explained that the doctor had prescribed a medication that could help him. My son, who doesn’t like to be touched too much and who is “too cool for hugs” and who rarely shows his emotions, got up from his seat, sat in my lap, and started to cry.
“I just don’t want to be sad and worried anymore,” he said.
I cried too. I told him that I wished he had known to tell us how he had been feeling all along. He said he didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to be feeling that way. I told him that with the medicine we might see a change in just a few weeks.
And so this kid who does NOT like to take medicine or put anything new in his mouth, AT ALL, asked me when he could start. My heart broke for him.
The next day he started the medication. He experienced some side effects, which we had been prepared for. Within a week or so, the side effects were gone; that’s when we started seeing subtle changes. I noticed him generally being more relaxed. Things that used to upset him, like his brother singing annoying songs in the car, now made him laugh. He told jokes. He smiled more. He just seemed more in tune with our family. I didn’t say anything to my husband, because I thought it was way too early to be seeing changes.
The next morning, my son woke up later than he likes to for school. He does NOT like being late, and normally this would have triggered an emotional meltdown. He came downstairs and said “Oh crap- it’s 7:00, I’d better hurry.” He made his lunch, ate his breakfast quickly, and went upstairs to brush his teeth.
My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. The medicine was working, and we couldn’t believe it!
A few days later, my son got in the car after school and said to me “I think those pills I’m taking are working!”
“Really?” I said. “Why do you think that?”
“It’s easier for me to talk to other kids,” he said. “At lunch, a kid was making fun of my lunchbox and I just got up and moved to another table.”
It blew my mind how self-aware he was. Not only did he recognize that he reacted differently than he might have before, but he attributed it to the medicine. To him, feeling anxious all the time was normal. It’s easy for parents to take care of the ailments we can see. But my husband and I had no idea what was going on in his head. He suffered alone.
Before, riding his bicycle had always been something he was too afraid to try. My husband had tried every motivation possible, but eventually he gave up. After a few weeks on the new medicine, and with help from his Occupational Therapist, he started working on riding his bike. He started for a few weeks using it as a balance bike without pedals. The OT told us to add the pedals for the following week, so we did. The next day, while playing outside, Joey decided to give it a try on his own. I watched in absolute disbelief as he just took off riding like a pro.
Now, every day he comes downstairs and reminds us to give him his pill. He’ll get them for as long as he needs them. He’ll get them because he has an illness and this is his treatment. He’d be getting insulin if he was diabetic, or antibiotics if he had an infection. Why is it so hard for the rest of the world to give mental illness the dignity and treatment it deserves? Why did it take me so long? I’m not sure, but I get it now.
Now I understand how many people may be suffering with mental illness and saying nothing. Their loved ones might not even be able to see it.. Now I understand that mental illness can be difficult to identify and diagnose, and very challenging to treat. Now I understand that people who “should” be happy and have nothing necessarily negative happening in their life have absolutely no control over the way they feel. I understand that people suffering from mental illness need compassion and understanding, and I’ll do my best to help our piece of the world get with the program.
Samantha Taylor is a wife and mother of three. She works as a magazine editor. She also writes for Kveller.com.
For more information and/or help:
- National Eating Disorders Association
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness
Grok With Us:
- Do you have any friends or family members who have mental illness? How do you help or support them?
- When is it challenging, and how do you deal with those challenges?
- Do you struggle with mental illness? What resources and strategies – or people – have you found helpful and why?