This I Believe

elizabeth - 02135, Massachusetts
Entered on August 28, 2007

I believe in the power of opening my mouth to speak

My first anxiety attack happened in the spring of my third grade year as I was walking home from school. I had turned the corner of Fairview Avenue and was nearing the Maple tree just beyond Mr. Scott’s house when my head began to throb. I imagined my heart swelling big, wrapping itself around me. As I gasped for air, my mother’s voice pushed down like water flooding the backs of my eyeballs. I put my hands to my head thinking that if I pushed hard enough, I could make this stop.

After that first time, it would happen occasionally. Or sometimes my head would just swirl. Like the time at the Outlet Mall with my dad when I paid a quarter for a gumball. The colors of the gumballs blended together as the candy shop began to shrink. I could feel my heart beating against the flesh below my collar-bone as I grabbed for my dad’s hand to stand up straight. Or the time in fifth grade during when I opened my reading book and couldn’t recognize any of the words.

I started taking medication when I was thirteen. My parents became concerned when I could no longer hide certain compulsions: during the day I had to hop, turn in circles, open and close doors, tap things, turn lights on and off, the list goes on. Before bed, I had to run in circles around my room, check under my bed repeatedly, look under my covers and turn the light switch on and off until I was too exhausted to continue. Then I would curl between the sheets and cry until I fell asleep.

I don’t know where mental illness comes from or why. I haven’t found it helpful to identify with a specific diagnosis. However, I do acknowledge that mental illness (however categorized) is part of my experience. I believe that it is important to write about mental illness because the relationship between the experience of mental illness and society’s reaction to this experience has the power to silence people. Through observing my own struggle and through working with others who have struggled, I have come to believe that people who struggle with mental illness are, like many groups categorized as “other,” vulnerable to having their words dismissed.

My experience with mental illness has taught me what it feels like when my words are dismissed, when my internal experience is not believed by the people I love and by the larger society. It hurts when the people I love not only can’t see what I see but try to talk me out of it as though what I see isn’t real. Essential to the process of accepting who I am is providing myself with a space to process and to express my internal experience. This is why I write. I can’t keep running away from who I am, even when I don’t like what I see, because the shame keeps me silent when it is most important for me to speak. When the words come, raw, vocal and alive, I believe that I have a responsibility to speak.