I’m the featured speaker at Arizona’s Mental Health Awareness Week

For the past month, I’ve been weaning off my anxiety meds—little blue pills that have been my crutch for six years. Meanwhile, University of Arizona called and asked me to fly to Tucson to be their featured speaker at Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the reasons I started taking anxiety pills was due to my fear of being in public. The irony is not lost on me.

So why on Earth did I agree to speak in front of God knows how many complete strangers in the Arizona desert? Honestly, I was pleased as punch with the theme. My contact at the university informed me that they want my speech to be funny, happy, and cheerful. Instead of bemoaning my depression and PTSD, they want me to talk about not just surviving mental illness but thriving despite it.

treeApparently, I’m the poster child for this thriving thing, which is surprising to me as I currently battle drug withdrawal, insomnia, and depression. I don’t feel like I’m thriving right now. I feel like I’m drowning. Despite my head being underwater this week, however, I sort of see what Arizona means.

Despite my social anxiety, I attend book conferences and speak on panels. (People actually consider me charming and funny at these things. I find this shocking.)

Despite my depression, I continue to write and work. I go to the gym and beat up weight machines. I cook dinner for my husband even when my appetite is gone, and I laugh at ridiculous things even when my heart hurts.

Despite my PTSD triggers (never walk up behind me when I’m sitting at my desk), I create. One of my friends recently called me the most prolific writer she’s ever seen—probably because I write to combat my mental illness.

I now have a speech to write. I need to talk about what it feels like to have a mental illness. I need to discuss treatments and techniques to manage. I need to put a positive spin on all the bad stuff, and even though it’s hard to be positive when you’re not sleeping, it’s possible. Anything’s possible.

On March 30, I will stand at the high tide of University of Arizona’s Mental Health Awareness Week, completely terrified to be the center of attention. I will share my story, though, which is something I’ve never been scared of. I’ve always been open about my illnesses, because demystifying a taboo steals its power. I will be funny, I hope. I will be honest. I’ll also be free of anxiety pills for the first time in several years.

Part of thriving is acknowledging our problems. We can’t hide behind mental illness. We can admit to it and move on. As I told a friend recently, “Slay the day.” Even if you’re terribly sad. Even if you’re scared to leave the house (or fly to Tucson, for that matter). Even if you’re just too tired. Don’t just survive … but thrive.

(Photo of me by Bill Thornhill Photography.)

How to be friends with someone with an anxiety disorder

1. Do invite me to parties filled with strangers because I need a reason to shower.
When you do, give me a week’s notice so I can practice smiling without wincing. I will also make up a dozen intelligent phrases to sprinkle into the conversation. For instance, “Funyuns are actually pig intestine.” And, for the love of God, don’t leave me alone.

anxiety10

2. Do invite me to parties filled with people I actually know because friends are good.
In this situation, understand I really have to be on point because I will see these people again, and sometimes, that’s nice because they know I’m weird from previous encounters. Other times, it’s worse because I just get weirder every time they see me.

weird
3. Do send me random gifs of Benedict Cumberbatch.
This man’s ridiculous giggle is quite soothing.

ben

4. Do make sure all the pictures in your house are straight.
If your pictures are crooked when I come over, I’ll walk around fixing them for a half hour before realizing you’re still in the room.

anxiety2

5. Do learn to recognize my “Get Me The Hell Out Of Here” face.
When things start going south (usually about two hours into any social situation), I start looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. When this happens, kindly usher me to the nearest exit.

anxiety11

6. Do not hand me a small child without asking first.
If you honestly think throwing a baby at me is a good idea, may the consequences be on your head. It’s not that I’m scared of children. It’s just that I think I’ll drop them and I’m scared of children.

anxiety9

7. Do forget when I say awkward things.
Sometimes, I might text you after we’ve hung out to say, “OMG, I can’t believe I said THAT. Please forgive me.” You probably won’t remember I said THAT, but I’ll have been obsessing over THAT for the past three hours.

808009

8. Do expect me to cancel plans without a viable excuse.
Some days, I can’t leave the house. Admitting this to you is way better than me breaking a finger on purpose just so I can say, “Hey, broke my finger. Rain check?”

anxiety8

9. Do not talk to me at the gym.
The gym is a very safe place where I am in the zone. If you break that zone, I might notice I’m in public, surrounded by sweaty strangers. Don’t let me notice.

anxiety6

10. Do laugh when I immediately assume everyone hates me.
Basically, every day, I think someone hates me. Realistically, I don’t think people hate me, but my anxiety does, so laugh. I might just laugh with you.

anxiety1