We usually think of children, K-12 and college-age, and school when we consider learning. However, learning affects everyone even into the senior years and in every facet of life. Many adults return to school to enhance or change careers; learn a hobby, interest or skill; meet new people; challenge themselves; or, fulfill a dream. The challenge of learning is exciting and good for us but can become problematic when we are faced with mental disorders. I have lived with depression and anxiety since adolescence. Both mental disorders impact my ability to learn.
I was a good student and rarely missed days from school. School offered me respite from my turbulent home, and I enjoyed learning. I was a bright, engaged student, but learning did not come easily. Depression hindered my abilities to focus and concentrate. Fatigue and irregular sleep patterns meant I fought the fog of sleepiness and drowsiness in my morning classes. Anxiety kept me worried about performance and interacting with other students.
Teachers and others treated my questions as signs that I was not paying attention. I frequently felt as if I would jump out of my skin and go flying off in myriad directions with myself scattered in fragments. No one around me seemed to have the problems I experienced. I shared my pain with no one, afraid that telling someone would invite ridicule and disdain. My distress was almost palpable, but no one seemed to notice. I felt alone, unsettled, exposed, and vulnerable.
Social interactions and learning social skills made me nervous and jittery. Forming ideas in my head and articulating them effectively were difficult even when I knew what I wanted to say. I feared angering and alienating other people by making inappropriate or foolish comments.
My senior year in high school, I attended classes in the mornings and worked in the afternoons. While I was excited to be working, learning the tasks and responsibilities of holding a job and developing skills to be successful unnerved me. I feared making mistakes and getting fired or reprimanded in the presence of coworkers. I feared being ignored with no one willing to help me.
When I graduated, I became a full time employee. A series of promotions led to my eventual transfer to a different department and a prestigious position in the company. With each promotion, the angst of learning something new and trying not to make any mistakes confronted me. As I acquired more skills to do my jobs, additional responsibilities were placed on me. I often had to learn a new job functions while already feeling overwhelmed with the present duties. At the time, I had not been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, other than the ‘bad nerves’ diagnosis and ‘nerve pills’ my doctor prescribed for a short time when I was thirteen years old.
In 1995, I returned to school as a nontraditional student. My full time job and single parenting my adolescent son were at the forefront of my everyday life. Adding school to my other responsibilities and living with mental disorders meant going into a state of hyper-vigilance and ultra-attentiveness to everything. I carried a double major and completed my undergraduate degree in 1998.
In 2005, following what would be a defining, pivotal experience, I developed panic attacks. I was in graduate school at the time and learning was particularly difficult as I struggled to concentrate, focus, apply what I was learning, and turn in cohesive assignments amid the turmoil of my life, untreated. I was out of work, subsisting on unemployment benefits; out of insurance benefits; out of medication; lacking a support system; without a counselor, and, without a spiritual foundation. I finished graduate school in December 2006 amid what turned out to be one of the lowest points in my life.
A counselor diagnosed the depression in my mid-twenties. In 2015, I received the diagnoses of dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Despite seeing several counselors over the years, no one previously diagnosed the anxiety—I was high-functioning so my struggles were chalked up to behavioral habits I ‘should’ be able to control such as go to bed earlier; get out of bed before the last minute; pay attention; buckle down and focus; eat less.
Teachers, bosses, and others hurried me and told me to work faster and be more productive. I developed migraine headaches in my twenties that persisted through my fifties. A sense of emptiness, low energy, indecisiveness, and that something was very wrong with me plagued me. The coping strategies that kept me going were journaling; busyness; perfectionism; self-reliance; denying my feelings; eating; and, ignoring my emotions. Forged out of desperation, some of my approaches were effective and others turned out to be self-defeating.
One of the most powerful lessons for me was learning I am not alone. I am not the only person with these mental disorders, and I have people and mechanisms in life to help me cope. I now have a counselor, a psychiatrist, a supportive circle of friends, loving family members, and effective medications. Today, I lead a full, productive life of positive challenges.
I am learning to treat myself with gentleness and compassion. It is a lifelong process of remembering my tools when I am in emotional pain. I have an unwavering belief that if I work hard enough, life will get better even when reality is devastating and seems hopeless. I vacillate between good days and periods of angst and despair. My life is not perfect, but more days than in the past are manageable.
Mental disorders are treatable with counseling, journaling, stress relievers like MBSR© (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), spiritual and religious practices, and medication. If you or someone you know is living with one or more mental disorders, know there is help available. For information on services and classes, contact Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center at 515-274-4006 or visit the website at www.dmpcc.org.