By Tal Haslam
I can vividly remember laying on my back in the closet of my apartment, staring upward into the dark. Twenty-four hours earlier I had an anxiety attack triggered by what had finally been diagnosed as my severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Now, alone in my closet, my chest and stomach were tied in knots, and I could feel my throat burning from acid reflux. I hadn’t slept and I was just hoping no one would find me. I remember wishing I could just disappear.
I think deep down I was afraid of watching other people watch me go insane. I didn’t want to see another glassy-eyed nod or hear another generic supportive comment. I was terrified to tell anyone I couldn't get out of bed in the morning or that I was failing my classes.
There were lots of mirror conversations. “What in the world happened to me? I used to have a work ethic. I used to have fun. I used to want to be alive. Why can’t I pull my life together? I am worthless. I am so stupid.” I was so encumbered by mental illness that all I had the strength to do was walk five feet from my bed to my closet to hide.
Share Your Story: Tell us how depression and anxiety have affected your life.
I’ve struggled with mental health as long as I can remember. As a kid I would write out all of my morbid and depressed thoughts and feelings in my school notebooks. I felt dizzy and tired during class and at home. Luckily for me, my family’s history of mental illness made my parents hyper-vigilant, and when adolescence worsened my symptoms, they encouraged me to start taking medication.
When the drugs kicked in, I was blown away that I could wake up in the morning and not have thoughts of death and anger. I felt more at ease and could interact with my classmates and friends and accept my insecurities. For me, medication was a miracle.
Despite this victory, my early twenties proved the true crucible for me. My depression felt relatively under control, but anxiety started to creep in and soon I was living with it every day.
College was hard. I remember crying in the bathroom after a lecture where I strained my brain to understand but I was lost nonetheless. I was afraid to look in the mirror and see my face, and I obsessed over physical and emotional imperfections. It became difficult to listen during one-on-one conversations because I was obsessing over how ugly or unintelligent the other person must’ve thought I was. I felt worthless in an environment where others seemed to thrive.
I left for an LDS mission to San Antonio, which I loved, but it certainly had its mental health side effects. The strict rules and expectations made me feel afraid and anxious, leading to intense and toxic perfectionistic thoughts. I worked myself to the brink and was constantly exhausted. I compensated for my racing thoughts and increasing anxiety by working harder and ignoring my personal needs.
When I returned home, my anxiety was at an all-time high and medicine was no longer enough. In many basic areas of my life, I was unable to function. This brought feelings of shame and embarrassment as I watched my peers and the world around me move forward without me. I felt like I was running as fast as I could, but my legs just couldn’t keep up with the rest of the pack.
With some serious pushing from my family, specifically my angel mother, I experimented with different medications, saw a variety of therapists, and kept trying. Finally, I was able to break the go-to compulsive habits that I relied on to fend off my OCD and anxiety. A combination of anti-anxiety medication and therapy allowed me to take the edge off of my symptoms, while retraining my brain to fight against negative thought processes.
It took a lot of trial and error to discover the right treatment for me, but it was well worth the effort. I started succeeding again in school and achieving outside the classroom. I could see the light, and I began climbing the ladder back to a fulfilling life. As I moved forward, the person lying on the floor of that dark closet five years earlier seemed more and more unrecognizable, and that scene became an increasingly distant memory.
Today I’m much healthier, and I hope to improve even more. I’ve accepted that my depression and anxiety are chronic illnesses. I don’t think there will ever be a silver bullet cure, but I do believe that with the right help and the right habits I can live a normal, happy life.
I’m not a perfect person, and I’ve stumbled quite a bit along the way. But despite my mental health challenges, I am important just the same. I have family and friends that love me and need me. I am a person of faith and I am a creator. I owe it to myself to keep fighting and getting better because the world needs a “me” in it. I am excited to see who I will become.
I believe in the Lives Unencumbered movement because without key individuals in my life, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be here anymore. I know from personal experience that mental illness can make you too weak to help yourself. We as sufferers need a network to pull us out of the dark. We don’t need to hide and suffer alone.
Tal Haslam is a marketing professional and recording artist living in Provo, Utah. He is also a creative strategist for Lives Unencumbered.
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