Her words sounded soft and almost apologetic as she gave me the news over the phone. She had no idea I was already rocking back and forth on my bed… sitting in the darkness and wrapped in a light blue blanket that gave me no comfort at all. She had no idea I was fighting my lungs for each breath I took.

“Things just aren’t working out,” said my former boss.

I believe those were her words to me. The exact phrasing is lost in a myriad of emotions that, at the time, I could not fully comprehend, let alone manage.

She was basically letting me know I wasn’t meeting the company’s expectations. I wasn’t learning quickly enough. She denied it had anything to do with the three days I missed; days I know were more related to my mental health rather than my physical health.

For the second time in one month, depression and anxiety claimed my job.

Earlier that year, in March 2018, I resigned from a different position after missing several weeks due to the same causes: depression and anxiety. The job paid well and I was qualified to do it, but after a while I began having panic attacks before starting work and during lunchtime. A telephone conversation would leave me shaking and in tears. I missed day after day. I got behind on my assignments. I let my team down. I let myself down. I used up all of my paid leave and was quickly burning through my unpaid FMLA hours.

I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I went on the job hunt again, looking for work in the human service field; a field in which I had almost 20 years of experience. I have a masters degree in rehabilitation counseling. I have a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a second degree in English. I believed I could find something else and eventually I did. I found a position in July 2018 working with a human service agency.

However, it was already too late.

While I was gaining this new job and some measure of confidence, I was losing my home. The
bank sold my mortgage to a finance company and it was later put up for public auction in November 2018.

I lost the house. My family had to search for a place to live and with poor credit, that’s not easy.

The situation only made my depression worse, so I began seeking therapy and medication to manage my condition. I was holding onto a thread; a very thin, unraveling thread that I knew would eventually snap due to the weight of all I carried on my shoulders.

My illnesses were consuming me and destroying the life I’d spent years building for my family. These conditions didn’t just take away my livelihood. They took away my security and, as the main breadwinner in the household, they took away my family’s stability as well. I lost our health insurance and eventually ended up on Medicaid. What my husband made just wasn’t enough to keep us above water.

We no longer live paycheck to paycheck. We live shutoff notice to shutoff notice. I have a negative balance in my checking account, which will probably close on May 16 if I don’t bring it current — and I can’t.

I don’t answer the phone because I know it’s a collection agency asking for money I don’t have. The last time I did answer one of those calls, it sent me into a panic attack, so I turned the ringer off on my phone. I don’t open my mail unless I’ve taken my medication and know I can handle what’s inside. Sometimes, I don’t even bother checking my mail because I can’t handle pulling out another stack of bills I can’t pay.

My mental illnesses have placed me in this hole and it’s a struggle just trying to get out of it. It’s a battle that millions of Americans fight, but few discuss publicly due to the inevitable judgment they will receive for being diagnosed with chronic mental illness.

Mental illness carries several stigmas, including the stigma of fault. For some reason, people feel that you have a permanent character flaw that is the result of your direct action; not something related to how your brain actually functions. You get blamed rather than accepted and valued as a person.

That is the real problem.

The truth is I have an illness that impacts me mentally, physically and emotionally. I get treatment and take medication for it; just like with any physiological ailment. I have to practice self-care, which is hard given my current circumstances, but I’m a work in progress. All humans are.

I’m an intelligent person. I graduated with honors from undergraduate and graduate school. I can function just fine… when I’m healthy. When I’m not, I’m — as my therapist would say — “intellectually compromised.”

I can’t focus. I can’t think beyond the next five minutes, if I manage to last that long. I operate on automatic mode. I do what is necessary. I do everything humanly possible to survive and to help my family survive. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to talk to other people unless I absolutely have to do so.

Mental health is something we don’t talk about in my family. We were raised to be strong through the power of prayer. If I had a problem, I was simply expected to “pray about it, get myself together,” and move on with my life.

This mentality made me believe that my problems could easily be resolved; that I possessed the power to eliminate them with a sheer act of will, but the reason I couldn’t resolve them was because I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

That is part of how I got here.

Throughout my life, I’ve always been the wall. People have always leaned against me for support. I can paint myself any number of pretty colors, but they eventually stop noticing me. I keep the roof from caving in on everyone else, but I’m always the one bearing the weight of it all. I may feel warm on the inside, but a part of me is always exposed to the elements.

Over the past three years, these illnesses have chipped away at me. Sometimes I don’t feel like a real person. I feel like my life and my experiences have constructed this fragile shell that’s wrapped around the real me and I can’t get out.

I grew up between these carefully drawn lines of a soul. I was told to exist within those lines; mostly for fear of what might lay outside them. So I did just that: stayed within lines drawn by others.

I have screamed. I have cried. I have fought this battle constantly over the years.

And yes: I still pray.

I had this dream of becoming a writer one day. It was my dream and it was a vivid one. I still have it when I remember that there is a real me buried beneath this shell that stretches when I push against it, but it refuses to break because depression and anxiety have their arms wrapped securely around me.

I know I can change this. I can break down the shell and begin living for myself. Depression and anxiety will always be a part of me. I have to live with them, but that doesn’t mean I have to surrender to them.

I have to keep treating my mental illnesses and not hide from them. They are my unwilling roommates as I try to navigate this life while battling them for my soul. I will win; maybe not today or tomorrow, but I will win because my story has just begun and I refuse to surrender.

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Author: V.C. Turner