Mental illness can interfere with daily life. Although often neglected by women, mental health is just as important as physical health. Here to tell us about her experiences facing anxiety and depression is Karen Lange. She understands that good mental health is important to her overall well-being. In honor of National Recovery Month, learn why Karen made the decision to take control of her mental health and find support.
Q: How is depression different from feeling down or blue? What type of anxiety disorder have you been diagnosed with? How do the two diagnoses impact each other?
A: Depression is different from feeling down or blue because it’s persistent. When you’re down because something happens, usually it goes away after a certain amount of time, but depression lingers.
Diagnoses are tricky to pin down, but I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. My diagnosis is very connected to the fears I had growing up, which led to insomnia because I was afraid of what could happen at night.
When I was a kid, my mom was fascinated by serial killers. We had lots of books around the house and she would share stories. I think she thought being aware would make me more cautious and mindful of my surroundings, but it terrified me. It’s an anxiety that stuck with me for a long time. It wasn’t quick or easy to overcome.
That’s the thing about anxiety disorders; despite rational thought, this was still an irrational fear I couldn’t get rid of. It didn’t help that I’m a creative person with a vivid imagination.
As for how they impact each other, I think not getting enough sleep made my depression worse. I’d wake up not rested and would feel worse about the general state of life. In therapy, I found it more difficult to face up to fears than feelings, but by easing my anxiety, I was better able to work on the depression. I think for a lot of people who are in treatment, it's frustrating. You just want it all to go away. I wanted to work on both issues, but the successes in battling my anxiety opened the door for dealing with my depression.
Q: Before you were diagnosed with anxiety and depression, what was your day-to-day life like?
A: I dealt with a lot of sleeplessness during the evening, and part of my depression was irritability. Irritability is hard to avoid when you don’t get enough sleep, so I would be easily angered or frustrated by things during the day.
With my depression, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, ever. There’s a certain part of depression that isn’t direct emotional sadness, but it was more of an inability to feel deeply about anything. People may think that depressed people spend a lot of time crying, but I didn’t. I used to try to for some kind of release, but I couldn’t. It’s sort of a numbness and an inability to determine how to change it. It’s not as though there’s no ability to enjoy joyful things. I got married and got new jobs, all of which were exciting, but you end up moving back to that weird status of not being super happy or super sad. If you don’t treat depression, it keeps coming back.
Q: How old were you when you were diagnosed?
A: It was my senior year of college. I was 21.
Q: What made you decide to find support?
A: I wanted to get help after breaking up with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. I realized that I had poured everything I was into our relationship and didn’t have a lot left for myself. It made me look at my life, who I was, and who I was becoming. I started seeing a psychologist regularly and went on antidepressants.
I realized how I was feeling was part of a bigger thing. The combination of the therapy and the antidepressants really helped me. The medication didn’t solve all my problems, but they it enabled me to cope better and be more productive with my therapist.
Q: How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
A: I was relieved. I had been worried I was beyond help, but getting diagnosed helped me realize I wasn’t alone. A lot of other people out there get it and struggle with the same things. Also, I was relieved because this was a way to help me make plans.
Q: Can you tell us how you manage your symptoms?
A: It’s been easier to manage my symptoms since I found more satisfaction in what I do with my life. The treatment helped make that possible. Right now I’m not doing talk therapy; it just no longer felt necessary to have a weekly visit. But I am on two medications for depression and I take a sleep aid. A win for me will be to kick the sleeping medication.
Q:What is life like for you now?
A: Life is great right now! After being in treatment for a while, I realized I missed acting. I had acted when I was younger. I took some improv classes and over time moved into musical trouopes. I enjoyed writing songs and being in musicals, and eventually I moved into scripted acting. Then I started getting auditions and roles. It has become a great outlet, and I don’t think I would have been able to do it without treatment. I learned to get over the assumption that no one would ever want to watch me perform. Getting treatment helps you rediscover what you love.
Q: The stigma around mental illness still exists, even with all that’s being done to build knowledge and understanding about mental illnesses. Why do you think that is?
A: I think that people fear mental illness. There seems to be this attitude that you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you’re somehow weak if you have a mental illness. I also think when people hear “mental illness,” they think of someone who is violent or psychotic.
I think people fear telling others or getting help because they believe it’s a sign of weakness, especially taking medication. People should be able to get whatever support feels most helpful to them.
Q: Have you ever felt discriminated against or embarrassed to tell people about your anxiety and depression?
A: Yes. It feels private. With my insomnia I have trouble getting up early in the morning, and it’s difficult to have people understand that I’m not just being lazy, especially in the workplace. I’ve only ever disclosed this with one job, and my request to work different hours wasn’t received understandingly. I was asked for a written note and diagnosis from my therapist for my personnel file, which didn’t feel right. I think people are nervous to disclose things like insomnia or depression with potential employers. They worry employers might not want to hire them.
Many of us may have to deal with depression at some point in our lives. If we don’t get the help we need, it can be a lifelong problem. Yes, depression is a lifelong thing to manage, but getting help and developing a toolbox helps you just live your life. It doesn’t have to be something you think about all the time.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for women struggling with mental illnesses?
A: Do not be afraid to go and get help. And there’s help available even for those who aren’t financially able to find a therapist and just start paying the out-of-pocket costs. There are community services and other ways to find help.
Getting help is not a weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It’s a legitimate illness. It’s about your health and enjoying your life. Be open to trying the things that are out there. Try the different things that are available and find what works for you.
Also, don’t feel like you’re all alone. There are lots of people who feel the way you do. The only difference is some of us are able to get help, while others try to white-knuckle it. I think about it this way: If you’re trying to lift a 2,000-pound weight by yourself, it’s impossible, but if you have a support system helping you lift it, it’s achievable.
To learn more about mental health illnesses, visit the mental health section of womenshealth.gov.
Call our Helpline at 800-994-9662 to order Women’s Mental Health: What it means to you.
To learn more about steps you can take to keep your mind healthy, visit our good mental health page.