MHI: Mental Monsters by Senah Lloyd
*The following post contains this writer’s individual experiences and opinions. This post should not be interpreted as mental health diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your nearest mental health center or local emergency services.
(You possibly guessed from that blurb that I am a mental health professional and you’d be correct. I’m also a horror fan and writer and am a person in recovery from a depressive episode that has been my worst one yet.)
I’m glad to see efforts to encourage discussion about mental health and to break down stereotypes and stigma. A lot of people wait until their condition is erupting into a crisis before they seek help and there are several reasons why. Beginning therapy can be intimidating. If it’s your first time, you don’t know what to expect. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t like anything you see on TV.) If you’ve had a bad experience with a provider before, you could be reluctant to try again. People can also feel as though their symptoms “aren’t that bad” or “someone else needs the help more than I do.” It doesn’t help when loved ones around the person may be telling them they’re “fine” and they just need to “stop it.”
I notice language. No one talks about people who have other conditions quite the same way. I hear the terms “mental,””manic,””schizo,””psycho,” and other terms tossed around regularly. Sometimes we will forget and use a term in error, (“That party was ‘crazy.’” Or “I am so OCD about my kitchen”) but it matters that you catch this error, apologize, and do better next time. We also need to understand that people are people first, not their condition. They are not their labels. In our healthcare system, diagnoses are necessary due to our insurance industry. However, I think of them as ways to classify symptoms and behaviors in a uniform way so doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, insurers, and clients have a common language to discuss these sets of symptoms. I am a person living with Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD. I would prefer to not be called “crazy,” or ‘Depressive.“
A person may not know how to seek mental health services or don’t have healthcare coverage to meet their needs. Even now in 2023, I have seen mental health needs treated much differently than physical health symptoms. The stigma is still very real. People who don’t understand mental health may still whisper and giggle, but chances are, someone they know and love has experienced mental health concerns. We hear the giggles and whispers, and it hurts. I maintain empathy and respect for those seeking help because I understand how difficult it can be to admit that one doesn’t feel well, to reach out, and feel vulnerable in seeking help. I have recurrent episodes of Major Depressive Disorder. I will always be appreciative of the professionals who helped me along the way. They validated my experience, treated me with kindness and dignity, and didn’t treat me like I was defective or like I was just being dramatic.
Medication has its own stigma. Here are some phrases I have heard about medications for mental health conditions:
“You’re feeling better. Do you still need that prescription?” Well, actually, I’m feeling better because I’m taking medications.
“Can’t you do it on your own? That’s a crutch.” No. I tried to do it on my own. We saw how that worked out.
Would you ever hear these statements about heart medications? Mental health medications seem to be viewed differently.
For a long time, I kept quiet about my own struggles. I apologize to everyone for doing that because I was feeding the stigma. I feared that if people knew I was dealing with my own mental health issues, they wouldn’t think I could be an effective therapist. I judged myself because I felt that I should be able to prevent and avoid the illness. I found it interesting how I wasn’t shy about complaining to friends and colleagues the time I caught a nasty stomach virus. Support was offered and there was no shame in the situation. However, I couldn’t bring myself to share when I’d dealt with a depressive episode. Looking back, I now know that I was surrounded by co-workers and friends who understood and would have been supportive, but I just couldn’t put it out there. I was open with them about having Covid and other physical health issues but kept my emotional struggles to myself.
Here is what my most recent episode looked like:
I became irritable with people who were close to me. I let a lot of personal tasks slide. I completed work tasks, but I was completely drained afterward. By then I wasn’t working as a therapist because I knew I needed to take a break from that. All of my regular chores just required too much effort. Grooming became a chore. I needed to wash the same load of laundry repeatedly because it soured before I put it into the dryer. I was tired all of the time but didn’t engage in activities that would cause me to be exhausted. I used to run marathons and ultramarathons but then I ran less and less. A walk around the neighborhood became a big deal. Even though I was always tired, I slept a lot but still felt wiped out most of the time. My doctor did labs and checked thyroid levels and such. Those results were normal.
Things I had been very passionate about didn’t matter. I had stopped being physically active, stopped creating art, and stopped going out with my friends. Before the worst part of my symptoms, I had planned a trip to Salem, Massachusetts with my close friends. I didn’t talk about it much at all. My husband was surprised to hear about the trip from my friends as they excitedly chatted to him about the agenda. I hadn’t said much because I really couldn’t get excited about it. He came home from the pub and was enthused about it because he knew I hadn’t been myself and that a trip to spooky Salem was more like my usual self. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t go on the trip because I was still adjusting to new medications and was very raw emotionally. I also encountered stigma and discrimination from a travel insurance policy. Read your policy very carefully.)
Getting dressed and going out of the house became increasingly difficult. If you saw me during that time, consider yourself very important. I didn’t enjoy anything anymore, really. Everything seemed hollow. I began to have brief thoughts about dying. The thoughts were quiet whispers at first. I still wrote sometimes to escape from the void and express my feelings. The short stories I wrote during those dark times were therapy for me.
As time went on, the quiet whispers about dying became more frequent and developed into a desire to permanently leave. I developed plans for how to accomplish this. I hadn’t acted on the plans yet but having them made me feel a little bit better. I felt a sense of security knowing there was a way out. My professional brain screamed, “Red Alert!!” because I’d seen this behavior from the other side of the therapy room. Don’t be afraid to ask a person if they are considering suicide. You won’t cause them to feel suicidal and you may just end up saving their life.
I was almost to the place of implementing the plan, but a few things stopped me. I didn’t want to make an attempt and instead end up in a hospital permanently damaged but alive. I also realized how traumatic this act would be for my friends, spouse, and other loved ones. Then, I felt worse because I didn’t have a way out. I called a former supervisor who connected me with a crisis center and I started out on my current journey back to wellness.
That was a year ago. This is the first time I have shared the details of my journey under my real name. One of the short stories that I wrote while under the cloud of depression was published. It depicted a burned-out psychotherapist seeking suicide by a vampire. I have not allowed my friends or family to read that story because it’s too dark and it would be upsetting to them. I look at the story now and am conflicted by it. I hope that if someone who is struggling in their dark pit reads that story, they will feel comforted that they are not alone in having these feelings and there is a way through. Hope for a better day comes through at the end of the story.
My experience of depression continues to parallel the essay I wrote for Of Hope and Horror. I compared my experience to a classic monster story. My education in psychology and counseling does not protect me from depression, just like Dr. van Helsing’s studies did not prevent Dracula from arriving and creating havoc. Monsters and villains thrive when a character is isolated from their friends or team members. Depression thrives when a person is isolated from their support and begins to accept the negative self-beliefs that their depression is feeding them. Continuing to try to fight this monster alone decreases the chances of success. My illness told me that my friends didn’t understand, and they didn’t want me around anymore because I was defective.
Enlisting a team of a psychiatrist or medical doctor and a therapist will assist in defeating the monster. Assembling others to help like support groups, trusted friends and family is vital to mental health recovery. The moment the main character stops moving forward or falls down, the monster is ready to attack. Depression is the same. We must be constantly working on recovery and looking for any problems or regressions. If there is any stagnation, the monster will most assuredly attack. If I forget to take medication, have social contacts, or stop getting physical activity, the negative feelings can sneak back up on me.
Horror tells us to never fight monsters alone. Speak up about them and seek out others to assist. I’ve learned to not attempt to deal with mental health concerns all alone or ignore them altogether. Few monsters disappear without some confrontation and mental health issues don’t just go away by themselves.
I returned to work after a year. I am grateful to have been able to take the time off and get myself on a journey toward wellness. I am currently not accepting clients and have chosen an administrative support role in the mental health field. I’d always wanted a “gap year” and regretted that I didn’t take one when I was younger. After finally taking that year off, I feel that I should have completed a novel or hiked the Appalachian Trail, backpacked Europe, or something more …’productive.’ I sometimes feel that I wasted this time off. But then I remind myself of the state I was in when this adventure began and where I am today, and I did do something productive in these long months. I worked on myself, rested, and pressed on with my recovery. That way, I am healthier and ready for the other adventures when they will come.
Here are some mental health resources to learn more:
Senah Lloyd is an emerging writer in Virginia. She is a licensed mental health professional as well as a person living with invisible disabilities. She has published short stories under the pen name Sarah Sigfried. She has been writing for most of her life but only began submitting works for publication during the Covid Pandemic. Her work has been printed in multiple anthologies around topics of vampires, ghosts, aliens, cryptids, and other creepiness. She also is a staff writer with Horror Obsessive and is a member of the HWA and the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. Be on the lookout for her short stories to be released together in their own anthology later this year. Senah lives with her spouse and their black cat, Sam in a house originally built by a mortician.
You can download the HWA’s anthology Of Horror and Hope mentioned in Senah’s post using this link. It is free to read. https://horror.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/HWA-MHI-Of-Horror-And-Hope-Wellness.pdf