An Actual List of Real Mental Illness Symptoms

I went to the doctor today.

I almost convinced myself not to go.


It’s the cycle of mental illness… Is something wrong?… Am I OK?… I’m not OK… I’m FINE… Everyone has ups and downs… This is normal… This is not even a little normal… and on and on and on.

I convinced myself to go to the doctor last night, after I spent the day with a tension headache from clenching my jaw. And clenching my back. And my shoulders and neck. Also, my legs. My heart hadn’t stopped hammering since noon — fight or flight adrenaline I was trying to turn into “freeze,” promising myself if I just stayed very still, took deep breaths, and practiced mindfulness, it would go away. I silently repeated “please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me” every time someone walked in the room, but my internal monologue and external rigor mortis failed to dissuade them. They talked and talked and talked and talked. After all, a mommy and a wife who sits on the couch playing HayDay all day like it’s her job looks like one who can be interrupted.

I didn’t look like I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t look like I was trying to crawl out of my skin. I didn’t look like someone who should be taken to the hospital, just to check — just to be sure it wasn’t something Life Threatening — the way we take our kids to the emergency room in the middle of the night in case it’s appendicitis, even though we know it’s probably gas. When they’re in pain and it doesn’t stop, we take them anyway. Sometimes I wish I treated myself as kindly as I do my kids.

I stood in the bathroom last night, counters covered in scattered makeup, old bottles of lotion, someone’s $2 bill from Christmas, a sticky goo I choose to believe is toothpaste, and kids’ permission slips we failed to sign on time. I stood in the bathroom, and I held onto the counter, and I forced myself to say to Greg, “I’m not well. I’m going to the doctor tomorrow.”

It was a Herculean effort to say the words. Not because I was embarrassed or ashamed. Not because I wanted to hide it, either. It was, physically and literally, a feat of sheer will to move the words from my head, down to my mouth, and out of it. I know that sounds crazy. But it’s like being drunk; I may be able to form cogent words in my head, but there’s no conduit to push them out my mouth. I have the Thought, but then I have to figuratively get it dressed, brush its hair, find its damn shoes which are never by the front door where they’re supposed to be, dig through its purse for the car keys, drive it to the mental hardware store, decide what type of conduit will connect the Thought to my mouth, buy that pipe which is too big to fit in the car, take it home with it hanging out the trunk, unload it, and build the connection with whatever poor supplies I have on hand before I can force that Thought — “I’m not well” — from my lips.

“I’m not well,” I said to Greg. “I’m going to the doctor tomorrow.”

“K,” he said, but he looked at me quizzically, head tilted, eyebrow raised. “Soooooo,” he said, “what kind of not well? Liiiike, physically?”

“Mentally,” I said.

And then Greg began the Usual Litany because he’s kind and he loves me. “Let me know what you need.” “I’m here for you.” “What can I do?” “How can I help?” “Do you need me to have the kids?” “I can cancel my trip tomorrow.” And, of course, because we are us, “OH! SHOOT! Did you sign that permission slip yet?” And “Crap; I think the water bill is late.” And “But, really, what do you need?” A barrage of words. Machine gun, rapid fire style.

There were no more Thoughts, though. I’d built the conduit for the one I had. It was used, and Thought Conduits when I’m sick are only good once. So I had to say, “I can’t talk anymore right now,” which looked pissy and ungrateful and guarded and unkind, but was the real truth. I was unable. I’d already used All My Words. There weren’t any more available. Just none.

I was up until 2am last night, shaking, unable to sleep, even with the sleep aid I’m prescribed. I’ve had weeks now of failing to sleep, unless I sleep outside, which calms me and allows me to sleep by midnight which is a miracle. Unfortunately, the rain here in Oregon doesn’t always cooperate with my outdoor arrangement, so I’ve been back to shaking ’til the wee hours of the morning, sometimes until the sun comes up.

Still, by the time I pulled myself from bed this morning, I wasn’t sure it was all that bad. I thought, Maybe I don’t need to go to the doctor quite yet. And, Maybe I’m just being dramatic. And, Insomnia is temporary; I’ll sleep again eventually if I just give it time. Thus began the usual game — the one I’ve played daily, hourly, sometimes minute by minute, for weeks now — Which Me Do I Trust? The me in the night who promised myself I’d quit delaying to seek medical attention? Or the me in the daytime who assures myself the dark always exaggerates how bad it is? I decided this time to trust the night. Sometimes things are clearer in the dark.

The doctor couldn’t see me ’til this afternoon, so I spent the morning making a list of symptoms. I wanted to have Words when it was time. Even I could tell, when the list was done, I should’ve made the appointment long, long ago. I’m sharing it with you now, even though some of it feels Very Yucky. Maybe it will help someone else. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I choose no shame, yuckiness and all.

Here it is, a List of Real, Actual Symptoms of Mental Illness. You know, this time. Since depression symptoms always change.

  1. I have no margin right now. Zero. All human interaction makes me tense. I don’t feel worried or anxious, but I react as though every conversation may harm me. My breathing gets faster. My palms sweat. Heat runs in waves down my arms. My heart races. It doesn’t matter who the human is or what they need or how much I love them. All interaction causes my body to react in panic.
  2. Anyone walking into the room makes me tense.
  3. Phone rings? Tense, even though I know I don’t have to answer it.
  4. Greg answering the phone = tense.
  5. Greg laughing at TV shows and looking to me to see if I’m laughing too – not in the way one does when one is worried, simply wanting to share a laugh – makes me tense.
  6. Bedtime makes me tense. I shake. I’m jittery. It’s like I’m hopped up on caffeine all the time.
  7. I haven’t fallen asleep before 2am in a month. When I’m well, I fall sleep between 10:30-11:30pm. And the needle is moving further. Many nights lately it’s as late as 4am, 5am. Dawn is around 4:30 this time of year. I know from experience now.
  8. I want to spend all day in bed, but I don’t want my kids to have that as their childhood memory of their mom, so I force myself out of it at 10am, 11am, and we laugh at our family jokes about how much mom likes to sleep in. I like to sleep in; that part is true. But I’m lying to them when I pretend I like it every day.
  9. I pull out my hair, and I pick at my skin. I do it in places that aren’t noticeable the way an abuser tries to hit his victims so the bruises won’t show. I pick at the back of my head. The skin on my back. I’m scarred there, actually, from years of tearing my skin apart. I’m not embarrassed to wear a swimsuit because I’m overweight. I’m embarrassed to wear a swimsuit because my back is covered in the scars and scabs I created. I try to avoid pulling out my eyebrows, but I found a bald spot in one last week.
  10. I’m impatient with my family which I mostly don’t let them see because I don’t want them to suffer, but it’s been leaking out lately because it turns out there’s only so much you can shove deep down inside before it hits the saturation point and there’s no place left to shovel the emotional shit. It’s not rage like it was last time. I’m not explosively angry. Just irritated and annoyed at things I’m usually good at letting go. And still, not how I want to be.
  11. Despite #10, I keep nearly all of this secret. I look normal. I go to the grocery store. I have people over to my house. I host events. I wear make-up. I shower. I answer the “how are you questions” the usual way. Good. Fine. Busy. Eh – you know. Or, if I’m being terribly honest, I say I’m drowning a little, but, you know, that’s normal, and then I shrug, like, what’s a girl to do? This is not out of an intent to deceive anybody, including myself. This is simply because I lack both words and any emotional energy to deal with myself, much less other people’s questions about how I am, how we are, or what they can do to help.
  12. Shirts that touch my forearms bother me.
  13. I keep forgetting words. Easy ones like “laundry” and “couch.”
  14. I am constantly jittery. I can’t sit still or relax under any circumstances.
  15. I have eaten every Cheeto in the State of Oregon.

Yep. Somehow with those as my symptoms, I convinced myself I didn’t need to go to the doctor. <— THIS, friends. This is part of mental illness. The utter inability to assess and to know when I need help.

I walked into the doctor’s office this afternoon, list in hand. I told him I needed him to help me figure out if it’s time for a medication change. He had me fill out an assessment of his own:

Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following:

  1. Little interest or pleasure in doing things? Nearly every day.
  2. Feeling down, depressed or hopeless? Nearly every day.
  3. Trouble falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much? HA! EVERY DAY.
  4. Feeling tired or having little energy? Nearly every day.
  5. Poor appetite or overeating? Overeating. Sure enough. See note re: No Cheeto Is Safe From Me.
  6. Feeling bad about yourself — that you are a failure or are letting your family down? Meh. Some. Not all the time, though. I mostly forgive myself for being human and for being sick. But I’m highly motivated to fix this so I don’t let my family down.
  7. Trouble concentrating on things such as reading or watching TV? Yep. Nearly every day.
  8. Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed? Or the opposite — being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual? Yes. I’m either inert on the couch or cleaning like a fiend. ME. CLEANING LIKE A FIEND. CLEARLY I NEED HELP, MAN.
  9. Thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way? Nope. Other than the usual fantasies about being hospitalized so I can lay in bed all day and eat green Jello, I’m good on this one.

So. I’m giving myself mad props for making it to the doctor before the “Better Off Dead” lie asserted itself, but it turns out doctors don’t give you a clean bill of mental health when “I don’t want to off myself yet” is the best you can offer. In fact, it only took the doctor 10 minutes to call in a psychologist for back-up. Or because our local health system has better, multipronged protocols in place now for treating mental health. But probably for back-up.

I have additional meds and follow-up physical and psychological appointments next week. And probably more weeks after that because turning the mental health ship takes a while, and sometimes the med adjustment doesn’t work on the first go. In other words, here we go again. At least I’m at the Seeking Help part of the Deteriorate-Seek Help-Upswing-Health cycle. That’ll do for now.

My teeth chattered all the way home from the doctor’s office, another fun symptom of the adrenaline surge. I walked in the front door, and Greg asked how it went.

“Fine,” I said. “Good, I think.”

Maybe I’ll have more words later.

Until then, waving and waving and waving in the dark, friends,



P.S. None of this was today. All of it was last week now. Maybe two weeks by the time I manage to publish this. I’ve been writing this post since then, though, and it’s too hard to change it to reflect an accurate timeline. Add this to the list of Real Symptoms — everything takes an Eternity. I mean, FOREVER. Things that usually take me an hour take a day. Right now, I’m assigning myself Just One Thing every day, and I’m marking each one in the Hot Damn, I’m A Raging Success column on my internal score card.

P.P.S. I wish I didn’t have an internal score card. But I do. At this point, I’m just trying to learn to be more gentle about what I put on it.

P.P.P.S. I’ve missed you. More soon, I hope. <3

ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
  1. 840 Bentwater Pkwy

    1. I feel the same way Beth when my mental illness raises it’s ugly head. I forgot to write my comment before I posted it.

  2. Dear Beth – I’m so sorry you are having a severe episode. Been there, done that. Glad you could get yourself to the doctor. Take care of yourself. Love, Lois

  3. Asking for the help you need is the first step. So hard, yet so important.

    I hope you are getting the help you need and feeling better than when you started this post.

  4. So, Much. Courage.

  5. I’ve missed you, too…

  6. I am forwarding this to my sister who is suffering with depression. She gets really angry if anyone offers to help or asks how she is. She says she goes to a psychologist, but she doesn’t like her because she’s too bubbly. So change I say, I can’t she says, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She goes to the psychiatrist to get her pain meds. She tells me the dr put her on Effor (sp) but she’s also told me that before and then she didn’t take it because she didn’t like the side effects listed on the enclosure with the meds. She wants miracles, she wants a medicine that will make her wake up happy. She’s almost a recluse, she has no friends outside of work and she wants to retire next year, to what I ask, have you decided what you’d like to do with your free time? No, she replies, maybe just sit around. I don’t think she’s suicidal, but I don’t know for sure. She’s never said anything about that being an out. I so want to talk with her psychiatrist and tell her my sister’s truth, but know that without her consent, I cannot. My daughter is a psychiatrist and the last time I tried to speak with her about her aunt, she got really upset with me because she could not be the one to counsel her. I knew that, I just want some way to help her. It’s so sad seeing her like she is. I don’t know that she’s unhappy, she’s just.

  7. I love you so!

  8. I wish I could hug you.

  9. I read your post and made an appointment with the dr. Hope things get better for you soon. Thanks for sharing .

  10. I love that you are taking care of yourself. ❤❤❤
    The next thing on the list I would rec9mmend would be to start Neurofeedback, or work with a councilor who does emdr work. My guess is there is back ground trauma that is also affecting you. Big hugs. This is hard stuff. ❤❤❤

    1. Sarah mentioned EMDR and it is awesome. Our kids therapist uses it. She says she’s been able to help people who can’t even get the words out. Emdr basically provides a conduit for the two sides of the brain to communicate. When we are young we store painful memories and emotions seperately , this is how we get thru it, this is how it doesn’t destroy us. But at some point we need to put them back together and sort them out that is what EMDR assists with, and our therapist can help with that even if you don’t have the conduit to get them out of your mouth. It really is awesome, it helped greatly with our son. 3 appointments and no more weeping for hours missing grandma but back to just really missing her.

    2. Also highly recommend EMDR. I was feeling very similar to you a year ago. I finally made it to a psychiatrist and did the med changes I needed. That helped. Then late fall/early winter I had a stressful event that triggered severe anxiety. I finally did EMDR with my amazing therapist and it was incredibly helpful. Three sessions over a couple weeks and I felt like I worked through years of issues. I can honestly say I feel better now than I have in 20 years. It took med changes, therapy, EMDR, and some serious work on my part (including tears and more sleep than anyone should let their kids see).

      I’m very proud of you for making it to the doctor. I do know how hard it is to take that step!

  11. Thank you

  12. You know what I love most about this? Is not just that you are brave and honest to bring this to your readers, but that, because you are usually so hilarious and smart and capable (you’re still those things, that’s not what I’m saying) when you write about this, it shows other women that their life can be a whole mix of things. That just because we suffer from overwhelmed-ness or mental illness, or depression or anger, doesn’t mean we can’t also strive to be funny, and smart and capable, and see that as PART of who we are, instead of negating the other part that needs help.

    Also, it’s nice to see that other people go though this and their family sticks by them. I always feel like I should be deserted when I get depressed, like, “why should anyone be with me when I make their life miserable like this.” Good to see your sticks with you so I can allow mine to stick with me too.

    Thank you

    Thank you

  13. Thank you for sharing this Beth. Fortunately, I do not suffer in this way. However, what hearing about your challenges does for me is make me feel so very appreciative and blessed for that fact as well to be more aware of those in my life who do. . Keep plugging away at finding help. Praying for you.

  14. Oh boy do I hear you on the whole word conduit thing!! I sit there going “there are words in my head why, oh goodness sake why, won’t they come out of my mouth!?!?” I can also completely relate to knowing I need to do something to help myself but not being able to get from knowing it to actually doing it. I hope your meds adjustment helps! Waving in the dark!

  15. Thank you for sharing Beth. Fortunately, I do not suffer in this way and what hearing your pain does do for me is making me so appreciative of this fact. Praying for you.

  16. My 10-year old daughter blew my mind last week. We were talking about how you have to be really nice to yourself in order to get through adolescence, and she said, “So I need to learn how to mother myself.” *mic drop* Good Lord, if we could all have learned that lesson when we were ten…

    You’re in my prayers. Take good care of your self.

    1. Good job mama!

  17. Interesting read perfectly explaining what some of us go through. In the UK the resources are poor and
    There’s a high stigma attached to poor mental health.
    Wishing you well and at some point, though you may not see it now, like a flower you will slowly start to bloom.

  18. Sending love. Your honesty is a gift to all of us who struggle–which is to say, all of us.

  19. Beth, I’m so sorry you’re here again. I totally understand taking the kid with “appendicitis” in only to find out its gas, lol, and yes some of us moms need to take that kind of care of ourselves. Join me in my theme song, its the song Tomorrow from Annie even though tomorrow is used loosely and really means sometime soon. Hang in there dear lady.

  20. ❤️❤️❤️

  21. My heart goes out to you for having to go through this, but I’m so glad that you found the strength to take care of yourself! Sending prayers and some virtual chicken-soup – it cures physical AND mental illness, don’tcha know 🙂

  22. Dear Beth,

    Thank you so very, very much for sharing this. For making yourself vulnerable, for sharing your pain.
    I LOVE YOU. You don’t even know me, but I love you. You are a very precious soul. (A very precious soul!)
    I will be praying for you.

    <3 Laura

  23. I am so sorry you’re going through this. I’ve had the rage. The XTreeeem irritation. The Fear of Bedtime (feelings of panic actually) due to insomnia. The “Is It Time To Seek Help Again?” episodes. I can’t help, but you’re not alone. I love your blogs, I love your humor. Please keep hanging in there, and I will too, and you and I and everyone who knows what you’re talking about will keep putting one foot in front of the other. And there are good days, good nights, good weeks.

  24. So very proud of you for finding the words and talking to your doc about a med change. I’ve been there and probably will be there again someday. Waving at you in the dark

  25. Um, yeah. me too, literally.

    You are brave. I am piggybacking on your brave to say, me too. So much.


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