Three years ago, I publicly came out to our Welcome2TheBronx readers about my battle with anxiety and panic attacks. It was a decision that wasn’t too easy and extremely difficult because I was making myself vulnerable to such a large readership.
Thankfully, it was one of the best decisions I have made, not because it helped me, but because it helped others with their own personal journeys.
Immediately I began to receive a flood of private messages from readers thanking me for coming out about my battle with these mental health issues.
People found solace and felt like they weren’t alone.
My story begins in 2007 shortly before my beloved maternal grandmother passed away. I began to experience my first bouts of anxiety which I didn’t understand. Then came the panic attacks where I would end up in the hospital thinking I was dying with my elevated blood pressure and heart rate.
But nothing was wrong with me, physically at least. Then my grandmother died February of that same year and the panic attacks took a firm grip on my life.
I could not function at my office where I was working as a residential real estate appraiser. Even under the guidance of a therapist I could just not get by each day without some sort of episode.
I felt like overnight my life had come to a crashing halt.
Eventually I had to take a leave of absence from my office and transition to working from home where I could better deal with the battles of these panic attacks without disturbing the workplace.
By then, my doctor said I had to get on long-term medication to help me so I agreed to get on Paxil.
Eventually Paxil worked and the anxiety began to disappear along with the panic attacks.
But there was a downside to the medication especially given the fact that I wasn’t taking it under the guidance of a therapist and or psychiatrist to actually help me get to the root of the problem.
Within a few years my metabolism had slowed down so much that I gained over 60 pounds which brought a host of issues including hypertension and a borderline diabetic diagnosis.
During the summer of 2013 I made the decision to begin getting off of Paxil and try and reclaim my life, after all, I had lived most of my life without this anxiety and panic so I figured I could do so again.
I was wrong.
By September of 2013 I was fully weaned off.
That’s when all hell broke loose and I began getting palpitations, things I couldn’t explain, waking up in panics in the middle of the night and ended up sleeping at my parents each night from September through December until I finally settled in with a therapist.
But getting a therapist and a psychiatrist in The Bronx was and still remains nearly impossible.
“Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.
A mental illness can make you miserable and can cause problems in your daily life, such as at work or in relationships. In most cases, symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and counseling (psychotherapy).”
But what happens when you live in The Bronx where there are 10x fewer psychiatrists than Manhattan as New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray pointed out in an op-ed piece in Psychology Today.
“According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012 there were 1,952 psychiatrists in New York City.
When you dig deeper into the data and compare the city’s five boroughs, it won’t come as a surprise that Manhattan is home to the most psychiatrists, with a total of 1,270. Coincidentally, that divides out to approximately one psychiatrist for every 1,270 Manhattan residents.
But what if you live in the Bronx, the poorest county in New York State? The numbers are much different, with approximately one psychiatrist for every 13,100 Bronx residents. In other words, there are 10 times fewer psychiatrists in the Bronx than in Manhattan. And the numbers for other health professionals, psychologists and therapists, are similar.
Sadly, this local example illustrates a broader and troubling reality: The supply of mental health services doesn’t even begin to meet the overwhelming demand, especially in our highest-need communities.”
That became a huge problem for me when I began my search for care in The Bronx for you see, I’m a big proponent of doing things local and basic necessities shouldn’t have to be an obstacle course.
Eventually, I found a perfect match for me within walking distance from my apartment.
It was there that I began seeking and trying to comprehend the source of the anxiety which I never felt before.
I had dramatically lost almost all the weight I had gained and my blood pressure was at levels I hadn’t seen in years.
In order to combat the night terrors I was given klonopin to help me as needed.
In the beginning I used it pretty much each day but as 2014 progressed, I was down to using it every 4 to 5 days maybe even 10 days on a lucky streak.
I was finally seeing progress in the long journey of weaning. Then in March of 2015 I relapsed again.
Eventually I became addicted to klonopin as benzos, the type of drug it falls under, are highly addicting.
The sweat release of that blue pill that it gives you from having to deal with anxiety is heaven. When the pill floods your system you are at peace and nothing can bother you.
From 2015 through early this year I would go from cycles of taking klonopin at the slightest hint of a difficult day to avoid dealing with my issues.
I am not ashamed to say this. I accept my relapse and embrace it for what it is: something that happens and I must get through and try and be as strong as possible but at the same time I have to learn not to be ashamed or afraid to ask for help beyond my therapist.
But thanks to my therapist we were able to work through the root of my anxiety and to also use coping skills and tools to deal with it rather than turning to klonopin for that quick release.
Eventually I’d go 30 or 40 days without touching it and then I’d fall back into the trap but each time it became easier and easier to escape.
Then in April of this year I took my last klonopin without even knowing it would be my last.
10 days had passed until I realized I hadn’t taken one. I said ok I’m sure I’ll need one eventually. Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months but I’m happy to say that it’s been six months since I’ve touched klonopin.
This isn’t to say I haven’t had anxious moments or panic attacks, I’ve had a number of those, but thanks to what I learned with my therapist I was able to overcome them without having to rush for the pill.
Mental health issues, from minor to major are still a big stigma in our communities but even bigger in communities of color. This is largely because it is seen as a “white person’s” disease or affliction being that the face of mental illness is white in America.
People easily will dismiss you as weak or just crazy so taking those weekly walks to your therapist and walking into that building is a chore and a stress unto itself because you feel like you’re being judged.
“Despite the obvious need for increased attention and care, mental illness continues to carry a stigma.
If you do not believe me, here are some facts about the stigma associated with mental illness:
Fact #1) While 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental disorder, estimates indicate that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment.
Fact #2) Twenty to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. Stigma leads to fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness and their families and causes family and friends to turn their backs on people with mental illness.
Fact #3) Between 25 percent and 40 percent of all Americans with mental illness will at some point pass through the criminal justice system. Stigma leads to prejudice and discrimination and poor treatment of those with mental illness.”
Not only do we need improved access to mental health care professionals in our very own borough but we also need to come out of our mental health closets and be OK and know that we can get help even if it’s limited.
Your support network doesn’t end at your therapist’s office either.
A strong, supportive network of friends and family is critical during this healing process and if you do come out and learn that it’s nothing to be ashamed about they will most likely try to empathize and offer the support you need as best as they can give it.
When I came out to a smaller audience, my load became lighter.
I was free from the stigma because I refused to let it stigmatize me.
Know that you are not alone in these battles and that there are resources out there.
I am writing this in order to help others out there seek the help they need and to know that you aren’t alone.
Let’s end this stigma on mental health and let’s fight for better access to mental health care access in our communities especially those at risk and need.
- Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. False beliefs about mental illness can cause significant problems. Learn what you can do about stigma. —Mayo Clinic
- Coming Out With Mental Illness – New York Times
- Help Erase Mental Health Stigma – Mental Health Association of New York City
- People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project