Life on the Cliff's Edge: On depression and anxiety

Today is the last day of May, which is also mental health awareness month, and this year I've decided I'm ready to share my story. Most people who know me know that I suffer from depression and anxiety, but until now, I haven't widely shared the details or the extent of my experiences. To most, I probably seem high-functioning, if a little eccentric. The stories we tell about mental illness usually revolve around characters who are either in the middle of a crisis or who have "gotten better" through treatment. But my story is different, and I suspect that to be true for many people living with mental illness. My story is one of a constant struggle to avoid crisis. It's like living life walking along the edge of a cliff. From a distance, everything looks fine, but a single misstep could be catastrophic.

I've had the mixed blessing of learning this second-hand, by observing my family. My older half brother, Bily, struggled with Bipolar Disorder and heroin addiction until he ended his own life in 2009. My younger brother, Doug, has spent the majority of his adult life indoors, incapacitated by a cocktail of antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers. And my father's anxiety, depression, and alcoholism led to him spending half a decade homeless, sleeping on a piece of cardboard outside a bus station. People who know my family always comment with awe at how differently my life turned out. The irony is that there's only one real difference: I saw the cliff before I fell off. Mental health is the first consideration in every decision I make, which tends to baffle a lot of people. So often I'm asked "Why can't you just do what everyone else does?" But "everyone" doesn't include everyone incapable of leaving their house, or everyone living on the street, or everyone who has ended their own life.

So how do I stay healthy? I don't use alcohol, nicotine, opiates, or prescription stimulants. When my panic attacks became debilitating in 2007, I gave up caffeine. I'd been drinking 15-20 cups of coffee per day because I was too tired to do anything without it. The panic attacks subsided into a slow burn of generalized anxiety, but I needed a way to improve my poor sleep. After years of experimenting, I found that a combination of morning light therapy, wearing blue-blocking glasses in the evening, and a regular schedule of 9 hours of sleep at the same time every night allowed me to function. People are often envious that I get 9 hours of sleep every night, but are less envious when I leave parties to go to bed at 10pm on Friday night so I can get up at 7:30 on Saturday. I resisted antidepressants for a long time because I was afraid of altering my thinking or further muting my already dull emotions. But then, things got worse.

In 2011, my stress level hit an all-time high. My father was newly homeless after a divorce. My own relationship of 3.5 years had ended in pain and humiliation, cutting me off from what had become my adopted family. And my childhood cat, Cotton, died. At the time, I was freelancing and working from my one-bedroom apartment, which is a perfect combination of anxiety and isolation. Soon I wasn't well enough to take on new work, and I was burning through my savings to support myself. Things peaked after fall daylight savings threw my sleep schedule off. For about three weeks, I was in constant and excruciating mental agony as bad as any physical pain I've ever experienced. My one goal was to find a way to lessen the pain. I spent every day trying to find people to talk to, just to get outside of my head, and the high point of my day was slipping into unconsciousness at the end of it. I was willing to try anything, and I finally made an appointment with a therapist and a psychiatrist. It was a couple painful weeks before I was able to meet with them. In the meantime, I made a chart of my friends. When I needed to talk to someone, I called someone I hadn't talked to in a while. I made a note of the date each time so I wouldn't lean too hard on any one person. I made it to my appointments. Therapy helped. Antidepressants helped. Things slowly got better.

Over the course of 2012, I learned to be happier than I'd ever been before. Antidepressants, combined with regular exercise and sleep, made it possible to fully experience happiness, but it was up to me to find things that brought me happiness. I learned to temper my ambition and focused on connecting with friends. I spent more time with groups of friends, which helped create a positive environment even when my mind was stuck on negative thoughts. I began inviting friends over and making crepes for them, with everyone bringing their favorite toppings. The tradition has only grown in popularity since then. By the end of the year, I finally had a pretty good idea of how to manage my mental health.

So now I know what I need to do to stay healthy, but it's still a constant struggle. I minimize my commute time so I can have social time left over after work and still get enough sleep. I try to find ways to spend time with friends who are used to party o'clock starting at 10pm. I am eternally in search of a convenient place to put my wet gym towel in the morning. I start shifting my sleep schedule weeks before daylight savings. I schedule and plan and focus my work time to increase my efficiency. And if I get off of my sleep/exercise routine, I fix that before anything else. I've been glad to see compassion for and awareness of mental illness becoming more common. And I'm looking forward to a time when the focus shifts from fixing people when they break, to accepting and encouraging ways of life that don't break people in the first place. I'm looking forward to a time when those of us who live on the cliff's edge are respected for the weird dance we do to avoid it.