They say there are three things one should never discuss in polite company: money, religion, and politics. I, however, have discovered mental illness to be the fourth forbidden topic. There is an undeniable stigma that silences many voices… so I hesitate to write about my disorder, knowing I’ll likely be labeled as incompetent, overdramatic, or weak. But I’ll try anyway.
I have Conversion Disorder: when psychological distress manifests itself physically. After I was diagnosed, I quickly had to learn to cope with daily debilitating episodes. High school is hard enough and I had “extenuating circumstances.” I would be sitting in class just like everybody else, then suddenly, I fall to the ground. My body tenses up and starts shaking uncontrollably. I kick the wooden legs of the table, so hard, I bruise. (Some people say I look as if I am peddling an invisible bicycle.) My arms clench to my chest and my core tightens. Although I’m awake, I have trouble speaking. My voice jumps as my body twitches, making my words shaky. I sometimes try to laugh and make jokes to let people know that I am okay. When I utilized this strategy in public, my mom would get upset because she didn’t want people to think I was faking, since after all, “it’s a mental illness, there will be people that don’t believe it’s real.” Anyway, after a few minutes, my body shuts down. I can no longer speak or move. I’m unresponsive in every sense of the word.
During the last month and a half of eighth grade, I had around 50 seizures a day. By the first semester of ninth grade, I passed out (or was paralyzed) for at least 3 hours a night, not including the various episodes I had during school. What made my diagnosis so difficult was the lack of treatment I received. When I went to the hospital, the doctors told me that I might have a brain tumor, MS, or a stroke disorder—all of which were expected to kill me. I had to address my mortality at age 14. I was suddenly sent home, with no course of treatment other than therapy. What? I went from being told I was going to die to being told I was healthy, yet helpless, just like that.
The episodes themselves were difficult, but worse was the feeling of total isolation. While I lay stranded on the floor, the class would just continue, ignoring my personal crisis on the ground. There was no time to stop and tend to my needs. I got the chance to see what my life would be like, without me. Was my presence unnecessary? My disorder began to make me feel invisible.
That’s when I realized that I could not go on living the life I lead before my diagnosis: no more lacrosse or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I couldn’t get my work done as quickly, which affected my grades. But I refused to let my disorder keep me from being an integral part of my community.
To date, I have sung in every high school talent show, written in a daily journal for just over two years, and held fundraisers as well as started initiatives to change the way mental health is perceived in my community. Although I rarely have episodes anymore, having conversion disorder has had a lasting effect on who I am as a person. I learned how to work more efficiently, but also how important empathy and compassion are. I realized that others who experience mental illness internally could be suffering in silence and that I want to dedicate my life to helping those people.