Note: I drafted this…before today. And then life happened and I didn’t finish it and never posted. Just saw Wil’s speech pop up again, and realized it had to be finished. This is a little less sibling-focused than some of my posts, but know that some of my anxiety defffffinitely comes from being a toddler and seeing my infant sister’s seizures, which I have more often shoved aside than faced. Depression is my anxiety’s shadow. Let’s get to the story, then, shall we?
Remember when I told you about how my sister and I are Star Trek fans, and kinda nerdy? Today I am remembering that, with so many emotions.
Today a dear friend of mine sent me a link to Wil Wheaton’s blog, where he posted the text of a speech he gave at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I struggle with anxiety and sometimes depression, and the resonance was so strong, and my emotions felt so big today, that it took me three attempts to finish reading it. It was just…a lot. Relief at seeing my own struggles in better words than I usually pick. Shame that I am so ashamed so often. Sadness that my fight is feeling so much like a fight, and not like a “good” healthcare situation where you go to the doctor when you’re sick, and you get treatment, and you are better. Anger that it feels like this is ANOTHER burden, on top of the fibromyalgia, on top of the immune system weirdness that will 99% probably never be pinned down, on top of being a sibling and loving so fiercely someone who needs so much, on top of the normal human struggle to live and care for loved ones of all ages. I just got a bad health insurance situation resolved, mostly, and just yesterday, so I’m hoping I can spend some time on the phone on Monday setting up new care providers and all of that fun stuff.
Including a therapist.
But let me tell you more about meeting Wil Wheaton. Yes, go read my earlier blog entry, if you haven’t yet.
When I went to the con where he was appearing, I was in the throes of awful grad school stuff. I was at the tail end of my dissertation, my advisor was not the best fit for my training needs, I was not getting enough support – I literally waited for feedback on one of my chapters for nine months. (Years later, we think my health was already collapsing some, because I got a bad infection during my second year of grad school, and my immune system was probably starting to spiral into weirdness that culminated in the fibromyalgia.) And most grad students facing the wrapup of their work and the writing up of the dissertation are anxious, stressed, or otherwise not in a good mood. I’d known I struggled with anxiety since my first year of college, so I was seeing a therapist (who predicted that I had something like chronic fatigue, just without any pain). I was struggling.
And I just wasn’t as open about Lily then as I am now. I hadn’t figured out how to NOT make a big deal about her life, you know? Because she is, in a few ways, so different from everyone else. She can’t be treated like a typical sib, because she isn’t typical. Talking about her needs sometimes seems to feel almost proactively defensive – making a thing of it – but not talking about her makes me sometimes feel like I’m hiding her, which isn’t true.
So Wil Wheaton asked me about myself a bit, and I told him – with my anxiety on full display, in retrospect – that I was trying to finish my PhD. And he was gracious about it. He didn’t say anything about the fact that one of the books I brought to be autographed was from a used bookstore, and I hope he knows I would have bought it new, but I just couldn’t afford it then. He told me that he was sure I’d finish my PhD.
Those small moments are such powerful things, aren’t they?
Now, knowing Mr. Wheaton to be a fellow member of the anxiety club, that memory feels so much stronger. A moment in which a stranger said that I would get there, get through it – and not JUST a stranger, but someone whose work I had admired, a celebrity.
I want to thank him now, more than ever, for helping me fumble my way through that day and the months that followed – being brave enough to share Lily’s story with her heroes, being brave enough to be awkward, resolving to finish my degree. Now I’ve been a college professor, using that degree, and tried to give back, to help students and friends and strangers, via this blog, sharing tips about coping with anxiety, and maybe – if I’m lucky – being that person to speak, in a small moment, to help even one other person who’s struggling.
Do you need help coping with emotions or with mental illness? Check out these resources – some paid, some free, some low-cost. All links open in new tabs or windows. You are not alone. WE are not alone.
Captain Awkward: look, if you’re not reading, you’re missing out – can you really ask for better than advice from a filmmaker/film professor? Join the Awkward Army and be less alone in the fight against your jerkbrain. If you’re looking to be a good ally or to support a friend/loved one fighting mental illness, come read about that, too.
Captain Awkward: Guest Post: 14 Free and Low-Cost Mental Health Resources
Feeling anxious now? Try square breathing.
It’s been a little while since I posted because I have been tired, tired, tired. Typing hurt my hands. My computer monitor hurt my eyes. My chair hurt my lower body. Depression took over, and I didn’t notice, until it was too late and I was miserable.
The depression is still lurking now, although I have adjusted some things to reduce my pain. However, there is legitimate grief and sorrow behind it. I’m worried about my sister, who’s been going through a lot recently, even as she has been happy. I am grieving for the life I had before my diagnosis, which will never come back, even if my symptoms go into remission long-term. It’s a long fight ahead of me to regain the muscle tone I lost during my recent illnesses and the lack of exercise due to joint pain, let alone navigate my career prospects in science. And then there’s that nasty internalized ableism to fight…but that’s the subject of a post that’s coming up soon.
Amidst everything, then, this is a thought I’ve had recently:
My sister is now more like me – she’s experiencing the rollercoaster of puberty. I am now more like my sister – I’m experiencing the frustrations of my body hurting and changing without my desire.
When she first moved into her own apartment, I didn’t call her very often. Lily and I, frankly, are very good at irritating each other, as so many siblings are! I was finishing my dissertation, and very stressed. I always know that I love her, and I often fiercely defended her or spoke highly of her, but I have had a period of time during which I just didn’t want to be around her very much.
In the last couple of months, though, I’ve been calling her much more frequently – at least once a week. I feel closer to her now than I have in a long time. It’s one of the best things about my current identity/medical crisis. Maybe we’re finally getting to know each other as grown-ups…
Despite the fact that I’ve posted about admitting that something is wrong and getting over being worried, I think I should say this explicitly: I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder a couple of years ago and have been working with psychologists and psychiatrists (i.e., using both talk therapy and drugs) to treat it. This diagnosis came a few years after a diagnosis of an episode of major depression; I’ve been using therapy off and on for almost 12 years now, since my second semester at college.
I’m not sure whether this is something that’s especially common among siblings – maybe readers out there in the ether can provide information? – although I know I did participate in a survey about depression and anxiety in adults with SWD several years back, and got the sense that it was common enough to merit study. (Interesting memory: there wasn’t enough room on the paper form for me to describe Lily’s conditions, so the person who was conducting the study emailed me. I think she understood why I had chosen the language I had after I listed the major points of interest…) Honestly, I think I would have struggled with anxiety and depression were I an only child or if I had had typical siblings, although I imagine it might have looked different, because, well, I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. (It’s taken me awhile to realize this, but there are anxiety and depression and related conditions on both sides of my family.)
It would be very interesting to me, as a biologist, to understand how much anxiety and depression are due to intrinsic biological attributes of a given individual, and how much they are due to things like growing up with a SWD. (Otherwise known as “nature vs. nurture.” My own take on things is that, like just about everything else in biology, there’s some role for each in just about every observable phenomenon.) Perhaps I wouldn’t struggle so much with anxiety now if I had grown up without my sister’s epilepsy as a semi-constant reminder that Things Happen Unexpectedly. Perhaps, given my penchant for worrying over things like scientific and general illiteracy in the US and how to solve them and whether I’ll be able to hire undergraduate assistants who haven’t succumbed to societal pressures not to be smart, what would happen if someone broke into my parents’ home and killed them while I was away, whether we can actually protect ourselves against opportunistic microbes that live in plants, what would happen if a comet were headed for Earth, and then some…like, every night before I go to sleep, and this has been the trend for much of my life…well, you get the picture. I pretty clearly was never going to grow up to be anything but anxious. 😉
I mention this partly out of honest curiosity about what other sibs think about their lives and mental health, and partly because right now I can tell that I’m facing some sort of psychological distress that makes it difficult for me to want to post anything here (or pretend to moderate comments with what I consider to be efficiency). I’d much prefer to discuss the former. Popular understanding holds that women are more likely to be depressed than men, and that women are more likely to be caretakers than men. Do these ideas hold true? Do they have any relationship to each other? Does the fact that my sister has neurological problems say anything at all about what genetic influences have affected my own brain’s development, or was it just unlucky chance? Do other sibs feel like they didn’t experience anxiety or depression until well beyond childhood, or were there early indicators? My personal experience, as I’ve mentioned, was that I didn’t fully internalize that Lily and I weren’t quite like other sisters until after my labeling as a worrywart by my third grade teacher. I knew she was different, but really didn’t consider that I would be shaped by her differences until I had already reached adolescence, and in some ways, not until I had reached full-on adulthood. (As much as a lifelong academic can be said to have achieved this. Yes, that was an attempt at sarcastic humor.)
In sum: Lily has a whole huge list of disabilities and medical conditions. I have an anxiety disorder. She fusses about me, I fuss about her, and I write about that here. Ta-da!