By Shannon Eddington
Life with a mental illness.
It’s not something you anticipate having to deal with if you had little to no history growing up. I was diagnosed at age 29 and felt it ramped up due to prolonged stress.
An anxiety disorder, with a heavy dose of panic attacks, disassociation, nausea, awful vertigo, headaches, and a few more ugly symptoms. ER visits for “heart attacks,” or so I thought. Running outside in the middle of the night for fresh cold air when I felt like my throat was closing. Long nights sleeping on the bathroom floor after an attack, complemented by vomiting, because I would pass out once I came down and wasn’t able to make it to my bed. For a year and a half, this was daily life for me and all I could do was endure and push through it with a steep learning curve of coping skills.
I have come a long way from where I was when initially diagnosed and live a functional life the best I can and have pushed my boundaries to return as much as I can to a way of living that I had prior to my illness. Yet, to my surprise, I have had to face and manage an overwhelming amount of grief!
I was missing my former self, I had lost my identity and I lost hope of ever being that woman again. I was devastated. Coming out of survival mode, I started to be more aware of what I had endured and how my life has changed from it.
Grief and despair kept me in a constant headspace of defeat. I prayed, I tried to cry it out and I tried to write. I have always painted but my art was colorful and bright, very happy art, but that didn’t speak to me anymore. I was desperate for someone to see how I felt and understand me for once. I felt so lost in my illness and the former me was buried somewhere within, I knew she was still there and she was crying out to be seen and understood! I am still here, it’s still me, I’m just different now but I don’t want to be abandoned or alone, I want to be loved through this! How could I explain the torture I have endured and get someone to truly understand? It’s so hard to grasp a horrifying and debilitating panic attack if you’ve never felt it yourself.
My self-portrait was the first piece I painted that I cried afterwards. I stayed up all night in the garage, listening to music and drowning out the world with paint-covered hands while my toddler slept soundly inside. I didn’t know what I was working on, I just wanted to get my feelings out and the very problem I could never solve felt resolved right then and there as I finished a piece that portrayed me. It’s complex and confusing but so is my illness. It’s beautiful but a bit terrifying. While the bright colors are murky, they are still there. It is me. It is my former and my present self, mixed together, creating a harmony that I didn’t know could exist. I stared at it and thought it was beautiful and I identified so intensely with this piece. It was haunting yet entrancing. In that moment covered in paint and tears, I saw myself clearly and also felt seen.
Mental Illness doesn’t have to have a stigma. The stigma of being “crazy” is hurtful because I’m not that. The stigma of being a “harm to others or myself” is wrong, because God’s grace has protected me from that. The stigma of not being “normal” is inaccurate, as this is now my normal.
I chose to stand up, speak out and share myself with strangers to show that mental illness looks like me. A kind, smart, adventurous, loving mother and friend who works very hard to learn more about herself and how to function while leading others into the same.
To those that participated in the interactive piece of the Living Arts altar and left behind a note of encouragement to the community of mental health sufferers, thank you. They were kind and compassionate and will be shared soon. I think those of us who struggle would be completely surprised to know how many in our community give us their love and prayers and truly hope for wellness over us. It’s good to feel known and seen, we don’t suffer alone.
Finally, if you remember nothing else about this blog, I want you to seek your best self and find favor in God’s gift of the present day.