Ty Phillips remembers a day with his three-year-old daughter when anxiety and depression almost got the better of him.
I hear rustling upstairs.
I open my eyes, check my phone for the time and sigh as I realize it’s time to face another day.
I sit up and wait for signs of feeling like crap, yet again. Am I going to be dizzy? Are my eyes going to bother me? Will I have chest pain?
I stand up; slowly make my way upstairs, trying to stretch out my back. Three years of sleeping on a small couch have wrecked me. I make my way to the bathroom, relieve myself, and splash cold water on my face. As I pat myself dry, I feel the first wave; a dizzy spell.
My body tightens and I sigh deeply. Here we go again.
I drink a full glass of water and take my Omeprazole. Between my anxiety and the Effexor, my stomach has been pretty much destroyed. I wobble into the living room, lie down on the floor and snuggle with my three-year-old while we watch morning cartoons. I place my heart rate and o2 monitor on my finger. It reads 54/98. So far so good.
I can do this.
“Daddy, I sooo hungry.”
My daughter’s clockwork plea for breakfast makes me chuckle. I stand up, walk into the kitchen, and fill my lungs with air. Is it hard to breathe? Is my chest tight? I can’t tell, so I keep going.
“I want a cheese stick!” she shouts from the next room. I was already on it. I walk back into the living room with her morning pouch of mixed fruit smoothie, a cheese stick, and a peeled orange. Now it’s my turn. I head back into the kitchen, grab my morning medications (I have to wait 30 minutes after the Omeprazole) and down them with my morning coffee.
Before long, the Coreg kicks in, and it feels like I am experiencing heart failure all over again. It’s hard to breathe, my heart rate slows to a ghostly 45-46 and my nerves start to get the best of me. “It’s just the medication,” I tell myself.
I try to take deep breaths, expanding my chest and filling my lungs as far as I can. The o2 still reads 98 percent.
I can do this.
To make sure I am not gonna die, I start pacing the floor. “Am I panting? Having chest pains? Are my neck veins distended?”
Nope, so far so good. Then it hits again. Another dizzy spell followed by a tight feeling in my chest. I tighten my jaw and start to get angry. “One day! Just one friggin day!”
Why can’t I have one day without symptoms?
The day marches on and my symptoms are steadily increasing. My eyes are bugging me and my head hurts. I’m bloated and full of gas and can’t stop burping. My chest is achy … and my daughter is bored. I spend 40 minutes chasing her around the house trying to get her dressed while she screams in delight and I internally scream at the struggle. Finally, it’s complete. I am sweating and feel like I am struggling to get a full breath. I move on anyway.
By the time we get to the store, my pulse is again in the 50’s. We go inside and I let her loose. She needs to discover and play and move, regardless of how I feel. These lights are bothering me though. Am I going blind? My left eye isn’t as clear as my right eye.
I start to feel numb, my chest tightens, I can’t breathe. I visibly take in a huge breath through my mouth.
I can do this.
As I chase after her, I think my left arm is cramping, It might be because I slept on it all night, but what if it’s a heart attack? What if my heart is getting worse? I can do this. After two hours in the mall, I am exhausted. I haven’t done much of anything though aside from walk and sit and watch her play at the playground in the center of the mall. I have however, checked myself head to toe.
Are my eyes okay? Why does my chest hurt? My toes feel numb. My left arm aches. Why does my right arm hurt now? By the time we leave, I am a bundle of spent nerves.
We pack back into the car and I hope the entire ride home that she will take a nap for me today. When we get back, she’s hungry, my head hurts, and I want to lie down. I’m frustrated and exhausted. My mind won’t shut off. What if I die and there is no one around and she is left alone for hours until my wife gets home? Stop stop.
I can do this.
I fix her lunch, turn on Curious George and sit down with her. I check my heart rate and o2 levels again; 58/98. Still good.
I put her down for a nap but instantly I hear her jumping on her bed, trying to open her windows, and throwing her toys all in an attempt to keep herself up. My jaw tightens again. In my head, I repeat, “please, please, take a nap.” It’s 2:00 p.m. and my medication has reached the hinky point. I’m sweating, my nerves are fried, my head is pounding from all day tension, and she refuses to sleep. I can’t breathe.
Damn it … why can’t I breathe.
The o2 monitor reads 99 percent now.
My wife finally gets home around 4:30 p.m. I’m done. I need a break. I walk down the steps, crawl onto my overused and undersized couch and take refuge in the darkness and coldness of the basement. In a few minutes I start crying. The tears just pour down my cheeks and I weep silently.
I don’t want my wife or daughter to know that my anxiety is making me depressed.
It’s been an hour. Crying done, face muscles less clenched, I sit up and tell myself, “I can do this.” I make my way back upstairs and start dinner. I can’t stop. This is my job, I am a stay at home dad, who had massive heart failure and suffers from severe anxiety. But I can do this. This was my life for quite some time—for far too long actually. At times, it is still my life. At times it was better and at other times, many other times, it was much worse.
I can do this.
My anxiety was so bad that I was getting depressed—deeply depressed. I felt hopeless and the constant negative feedback I heard, “just stop thinking that way,” “you need to get salvation,” “you’re not even trying to get better,” ad infinitum just made things worse. On top of the feelings of constant tension, anxiety, and symptoms, I felt overwhelming guilt that I was somehow not good enough or that this was my fault. I saw myself as the world largely sees mental illness; something that we can pick and choose to have.
The reality of mental illness, though, is that it is not separate from the body any more than stomachaches, broken limbs, or the flu. The mind is a by-product of the brain. Change the brain through chemical means or physical means and the character of the mind also changes; to be told that we are somehow less than, or responsible for the brain’s activity, is both factually incorrect and morally wrong.
Eventually I sought treatment. I even went as far as spending some time in a mental health facility being tested, getting brain scans and blood work, etc. I settled on a treatment plan, got on medication, and spent more and more time reflecting on what I could do and could change within my life. I worked on my mindfulness practice and I engaged in a meditation practice. Day by day I started getting better. I wasn’t cured and 100 percent better, but I was better. I started training in powerlifting again. I started writing again. I started singing and laughing and coloring for the sake of coloring again.
While we must not feel shame or shamed for our mental health, we can and should take responsibility for our treatment. There is no shame in seeking help for mental illness. It is an act that takes tremendous courage, especially given how people with mental illness are vilified and looked down upon in our culture. You are not alone, though.
There are others like you and me out there. It’s a process but …
… you can do this!