Let’s talk about mental illness

 It’s not something you plan.

Not being able to breathe as you look in the mirror, feeling like you need to scream in order to just catch a breath.

Standing in the middle of your room, clothes surrounding you on the floor, causing you to sink to your knees–desperate for the panic attack to stop and for your reflection to just look normal.

Wishing your body dysmorphia would just go away–that you could be normal.

It is not something you ask for. No, it is not something that is made up, and it is not something you plan.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental illness similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that involves an obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance.

It is incurable, but can be helped with cognitive therapy. Coming from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some symptoms of BDD include anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive checking in mirrors, obsessive skin picking, avoidance of mirrors, excessive grooming, seeking of plastic surgery to correct an imagined “flaw” and excessive exercise.

It has the ability to interrupt daily patterns and routines, as for some, their appearance becomes the only thing they think about.   

 

I was diagnosed with BDD two years ago.

When I was diagnosed, it was somewhat confusing because it was strange to me that not everyone did what I did.

It was weird to me that not everyone carried makeup with them whenever they left their house in case they had a flaw that needed fixing. It was weird to me that not everyone avoided mirrors, windows or any reflective surface in order to avoid an anxiety attack. It was weird to me that not everyone had figured out the few different positions they could sit or stand in in order to make them look their thinnest. It was weird that not everyone picked at their skin constantly or that they weren’t constantly checking their face, unable to go 30 minutes without thinking if they looked alright.

It was strange to me that not everyone had habits like these. Yet, when I learned that these habits were, in fact, not normal, I wanted to change my mindset so that I was not controlled by these things anymore. So I started down the path to making my BDD something that would not control me.

Two years later and my BDD has gotten exponentially better, but I know it will never go away completely. That fact is endlessly frustrating. It’s not something that I’m proud of, and it is still hard for me to tell people about it when it inhibits my routine, because not everyone understands.

There have been times when I was unable to make myself leave my room because I am convinced I look so hideous. Yet, when I try to explain why I have to cancel plans, I have been met with voices that say “get over yourself” or “that isn’t a real issue, just be confident.” And to say the least, it is incredibly discouraging and extremely hurtful when people answer me this way.

Even though it may seem like it, my BDD is not something triggered by a lack of confidence. I am quite happy with who I am as an individual and proud of the fact that I am a smart student and involved heavily on campus. I have plenty of friends, people I love who love me back and a solid family background.

So what triggers my BDD? Well, it is different for everyone, but for me, it is triggered by my anxiety. When I get overwhelmed, am sleep-deprived and anxious, my mind has a tendency to obsessively focus on my appearance, since that is the one thing I feel I can control when I am overwhelmed. As a result, the obsession becomes a perceived distortion of my appearance.

It varies in what I believe I am seeing. Sometimes it appears my skin is covered in imperfections, my face is inflating, or that my eyes are starting to go hollow. Either way, it is horrifying and puts everything else in my life on halt. It takes anywhere from a couple hours to a whole day to calm down enough to see myself normally again.

Luckily, as mentioned, this is not a common occurrence in my life anymore and is getting more manageable all the time. Yet, it is important for when I am going through this, that I have a support system. This goes for everyone with a mental illness. Whether it be depression, anxiety, anorexia or OCD, it is undeniably important that these individuals are believed and supported.

Lack of support and belief can lead to worsening of the symptoms, and sometimes suicidal thoughts and actions. These illnesses can be hard to understand, but should not be dismissed because of an inability to relate.

So take the time, be patient, listen and believe. Even one person saying that they believe and are there to support them can make a difference.

Having a mental illness isn’t something you plan, but it is something you can help someone cope with. You can help be their turning point.

So next time you don’t understand, don’t shy away. Ask a question. It’s time to stop shaming mental illness. It’s time to talk.

 

Tara Bierbrauer is a social work major at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and can be reached at [email protected]