I'm like any other woman in many ways -- I'm a wife and a mother of two who juggles a full-time teaching job with a part-time gig -- in my case, being a Macaroni Kid publisher. In between, I volunteer in my community and make time for a small group of friends who mean the world to me.
But in other ways, I'll never be "normal." That's because I have a mental illness. Though that fact, I've also come to learn, shouldn't make me feel any less "normal." After all, according to 2017 data, 46.6 million American adults -- nearly one out of five -- live with a mental illness.
Mental Illness comes in many forms. Mine comes in the form of severe anxiety and high-functioning depression.
I was diagnosed after seeking out help because I was reaching a crisis point. I got to the point where I would just stay in bed and cry on some days. I found myself avoiding friends and social events. I was having stomach issues at work. My mood swings were out of control.
I'd dealt with versions of these issues my entire life, but after the birth of my children, I felt like life was spiraling out of control.
I could still get up and go to work. I loved my kids with all my heart.
But I was so sad. I couldn't figure out why I was feeling that way, and why my mood could change at the drop of a hat.
I felt alone. I was upset because I felt like I had no friends, yet I had no desire to talk to them or do anything with them.
Weekends were my chance to cry. My husband would spend time with the kids and I would stay in bed, feeling like my world was crashing down on me.
Finding positive strategies
My therapist gave me strategies to manage my feelings, like keeping daily affirmations in my purse so I could repeat positive thoughts when I was feeling down.
She also urged me to start exercising. I joined 99Walks, an accountability group that gives me a chance to talk to other women and share our tough wife/mother/work stories. I've found that talking helps. Walking helps.
I also decided that for me to manage my illness best, I wasn't going to hide it. There is such a stigma around mental illness, especially moms with mental illness. I decided I wanted to be open about my journey because I shouldn't be ashamed of it.
Signs and symptoms of mental illness
One thing I've learned since my own diagnosis is that there are common signs of mental Illness among adults and adolescents.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness identifies these common symptoms:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior, or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
- Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- Intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
I've also learned that mental illness is hereditary and can develop in young kids, so I watch for symptoms with my own children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, the most obvious symptoms in younger children are behavioral. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says some of the most common symptoms of mental illness in children include:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
By treating my mental illness, I have given myself -- and my family -- a gift. I am one of the 46.6 million -- and every one of us is worth saving.
If you are concerned that you or a family member might be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, please reach out to your health insurance, primary care doctor, or state/county mental health authority for more resources. You can also contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) to find out what services and supports are available in your community.
If you or someone you know needs help now, don't wait -- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 911.
Nicole Zawidski is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Bethlehem, Pa.