This is a guest post from the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Peter Epler. It’s the third in a three part series for Mental Health Awareness Day on Oct 10.
Introductions are in order: Hi! My name is Peter Epler. I am 35, a husband, father, and owner of two poodles. I live and work here in Ketchikan as the Pastor at KetchikanNaz. I like fishing, exploring our amazing Alaskan backyard, and dabbling in graphic design. I enjoy napping in my hammock on a sunny day, participating with First City Players shows with my daughter and binging on BBC shows – specifically Dr. Who.
I also have anxiety and depression.
About 3 years ago my daily routine was all about survival by the minute. My brain was constantly numb and whirling at the same time. I sat in my car one night and tried to remember what normal felt like – what happy was, what excitement was – but frankly those were so far from where I was I actually couldn’t recall something significant. I lived a vicious cycle of fear, depression, panic and exhaustion. Every time I got an email, text or phone call my head would swim, my heart would race, and I’d feel sick. I worried over everything, I second-guessed every action and thought and word that I said, and that others said. I had panic attacks at random times and lived in fear of having one in a public place when I couldn’t control the circumstances and maintain ‘normal’ status.
Up to this point I’d done a pretty great job faking it at life – no one knew that I was struggling to get up in the morning, my friends didn’t know that when I smiled and laughed in conversations it was actually just muscle memory I was using. No one knew the dark thoughts that swirled around in my mind. I worried that if people found out it would change how people viewed me; personally, and professionally. Only my wife saw. She was the eyewitness to the deteriorating shell of Peter arriving home at night–spent from trying to survive the day looking normal. It was her encouragement that led me to seek help.
I went to the doctor and told her everything. She gave me the assessment and I either epically failed it or passed it depending on your point of view. Needless to say, depression and anxiety were a named foe at that point; and that was the first of many appointments. I was encouraged to take antidepressants and I refused…I thought I could fix this on my own. The reality was my brain was broken – my chemicals all messed up, and signals misfiring whenever they felt like it. In my own stubbornness, I was refusing the treatment that would help me…I had the misguided thought that this was a character flaw – not an illness. I had the prescription filled to keep her from bugging me so much, but it sat on my nightstand for weeks untouched. Then I took it out of the bag and set the bottle on the counter. I was slowly accustoming myself to the idea that help was okay. It was probably 3 months or so before I actually started taking the antidepressant.
And you want to know what? The medication did what it was supposed to do; it gave my brain a rest and helped me function. It took several months of consistent medication to put me in a place where I was stable again. The panic attacks were fewer and less intense, and the constant overwhelming cloud of oppression was beginning to have holes in it. I was slowly becoming me again. I remember watching a show with my kid, and something funny happened and I laughed. I laughed…for real. I had a real emotion that wasn’t sadness, and that moment was the beginning of many more. It took time – but I reached a place where I was able to pursue counseling – which was incredibly helpful. I chose a few friends and shared my struggles with them; to be known and loved despite the mess was medicine for the soul. In time, I was strong enough to be able to speak about mental illness from the pulpit at my church, and even to share my own story.
It’s been three years and I’m still on an anti-depressant. I hope one day that I can step off it, but if I can’t I’m OK with that. I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but it doesn’t define me. I have great days and rough days, but I have a support system and that means the world to me. My mental illness no longer robs me of living.
My name is Peter Epler. I’m a husband, father, and pastor and I live with a mental illness. I want you to know there is no shame in having a mental illness. It is no reason to hide, no reason to pretend things are fine when they aren’t, and no reason to fear people’s responses. Your value is immeasurable, and you are loved. If you are struggling you need to know that there is hope and help found in many places: medication, counseling, faith, and the comfort of friends. I know this because I live it.
Healthy Minds is a monthly column coordinated by Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as a way to share positive stories from people living with mental illness, offer information from local mental health professionals about maintaining mental health in your life, and provide details on tangible activities or actions you can take to strengthen your mental wellness. If you would like to contribute to the column, please contact Romanda Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org