As a child, I was often sick on major holidays. I felt nauseated as we prepared for Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house. I was not quite myself on Easter Sunday. It was a pattern that I had come to accept. Sometimes, I would power through. Holidays were special, important, not-to-be-missed. Sometimes, I spent Thanksgiving afternoon napping in Grandma’s bed, surrounded by my extended family members’ coats.
Remarkably, I often felt much better by the evening. We would go home, the guests would leave, and I would be ready to enjoy what remained of the day.
As a child, I often felt sick on my birthday. I often felt sick when my family made their once yearly trip to my dad’s favorite restaurant for a big family dinner. I often felt sick in the days leading up to vacation. I often felt sick on the first day of school. I often felt sick when we went to the theater on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a family movie. I often felt sick when Grandma picked me up for a night at the symphony. I often felt sick.
I felt sick. My belly hurt. I felt sick.
Many years would pass before I knew why that pattern existed for me. As a child, though, I just felt sick.
I rested my head on the coolness of the glass in the backseat of my mom’s mini-van. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to sleep. I felt sick.
In an effort to not be a bother, sometimes I told my mom, but I usually kept quiet. I have spent much of my life going out of my way to not be a nuisance to those whose affections I crave.
I did not know why it was, but I felt sick.
I suffered from recurring nightmares that I never spoke about either. I dreamed that my parents, surrounded by their multitudes of children, would take us somewhere fun. A festival, a fair, an amusement park, the mall. And when it was time to go, they rounded everyone up, put them in the car, and drove home. I was left behind. I believed they would come back, but time would pass and they would not. I would be there on my own, entirely forgotten, because I was easy to forget, to ignore.
I would wake from these dreams in a panic. They were so real. I could not quiet my brain. In an effort to not be a bother, I told no one, not even my mom. Instead, I went to my brothers’ room, their floor covered in linoleum, crawled under their bunkbed and let the cool floor take some of the edge off my fears. I would lay there like that until the grayness of morning began to spread throughout their room, and I would go about my day, pretending that I did not believe that I was so easily forgotten, so easily left behind.
I had terrible thoughts. I once imagined biting my little brother’s ear off. Not maliciously. It was an accident. We were playing. I did not know what to do. I was afraid of how my mom would react, so I took his little ear, placed it in the bathroom waste basket, covered it with toilet paper, and hoped my mom would not notice.
This vision comes to me still, even though that baby brother is now a grown man with children of his own. I am haunted by it and others like it. Some worse, some better. Always constantly with me.
I dealt with my first “prolonged illness” when I was fifteen years old. It began in the summer. I was reading eight different books for Honors English 11. I was overwhelmed because school would begin in four weeks, and I had three books left to read. I went to a friend’s birthday party, and of course, I felt sick. Because that is what I do. I feel sick. I had decided that I was dying. This was no ordinary sickness. This one would probably kill me.
I stopped sleeping at night. I ate poorly. I was sick for months. I suffered from constant tension headaches, my thoughts raced, I felt I was always no the verge of vomiting. I needed to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Wherever I went, this illness came with me.
I told my parents that I needed help, and they told me it was all in my head. They told me it would be fine. They told me that I was just a kid and kids have nothing at all to worry about. They told me it was nothing. Nothing at all.
Just feel better.
And it went away. Not quickly. Slowly, over time, I felt better.
I dealt with my second “prolonged illness” when I was seventeen years old. I did not believe that I was dying, but I did believe that I would never recover. I believed that the way I felt was the way that I would always feel. Sleep came in fits and spurts. I ate only what appealed to me, which was mostly potato chips. I cried a lot. I cried often. I was irritable, moody, and completely wrecked.
I told my mom that I was afraid, and she sent me to my pastor’s wife for comfort. It was the best she could do for me.
Saint Daddy was there that time. He held me through it. It was hard, but I knew, because of that experience, that he would always be the one for me. Who else would love me through a complete mental breakdown?
These prolonged illnesses came a few more times.
About two months after Saint Daddy and I got married, one began. My boss had told me that he had received a complaint after someone did not get me to agree to her terms. He did not believe the complaint, but he wanted me to be on my best behavior to prove that I was not what the complainer had said. When I entered my first meeting the next day, I felt sick.
I had to go home.
I left for the day and rested on the couch. Miraculously, I felt almost entirely recovered as soon as I walked into the sanctuary of my home.
Weeks went by as I suffered daily with frequent runs to the bathroom in case I vomited, which I never did. I slept less. I felt like I could not find my footing. I was drowning. I could not rise above it.
By this point, at the age of 22, I knew what I had. It was not a prolonged illness. It was panic disorder. I was not physically sick so much as I was experiencing physical responses to being mentally sick. I knew by this point that all along I had been dealing with anxiety. That I had a disorder that made me susceptible to panic disorder. I knew then that I could have been helped, that I needed help, and that it is okay to not suffer through it in silence.
I did not have a diagnosis, but I knew.
After a month, Saint Daddy urged me to call my doctor and talk about getting myself some help.
Within a few days, I had been formally diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder.
My treatment was to take up exercise, to give up caffeine, to cut back on alcohol, to talk about it, and to take a little pill once a day.
I took up running. I gave up coffee. I held onto my wine. I became so much more open about my experiences. And I took that little pill every day for a year.
Thank God for that little pill. It helped me to set myself to rights. It was not a miracle, but it was like someone had thrown me a life preserver as I tossed in the turbulent sea of mental illness.
And suddenly, with that diagnosis, I felt that it could be okay. For the first time in my life, someone with real knowledge in that sphere said, “This is a real thing you are dealing with.” It was not “all in my head,” even if it was in my head.
I was sick, but I was not actually sick.
In the last ten years, I have had other bouts of panic disorder. But I have talked about them. I have learned to cope better so that they last less time. I experience symptoms of my GAD almost every day.
But one of the best things that happened to me was being given a name for why I felt sick on special occasions and why I could not push aside visions of terrible things that came to my mind.
My mental illness was normal for me, even if it is not normal for the world.
My diagnosis changed my life.