Alisha Perkins has always considered herself an open person, willing to talk to anyone about just about anything. But when she decided to go public about her struggles with anxiety disorder, Perkins, wife of Minnesota Twins pitcher Glen Perkins, suddenly felt uncharacteristically reserved.
She wanted to tell people about her experience with mental illness, but she was afraid of being judged.
“I know this sounds bad, but I was worried that people would think I was crazy,” Perkins, 31, said. “But then I told myself that getting my situation out in the open was important. If somebody like me who’s married to a local celebrity could come forward and say, ‘This is what I deal with every single day, I’m not ashamed,’ maybe that could help others not feel afraid about asking for help with their mental illness.”
Perkins first told her story this fall on her RedCurrent blog. The supportive public response was heartening, and she appeared on local television news programs to talk about her experience with anxiety disorder.
The goal of all of this public outreach, said the busy mother of two girls (Addison, 8, and Lyla, 6), is to break down the “cloak of silence” that she feels surrounds common conditions like anxiety and depression.
“I have a mental illness,” Perkins says. “It’s not something that people decide to have, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It still baffles me that in this day and age, talking about anxiety and depression is taboo. We have to get it out in the open if we want to get better. There are many effective ways to treat mental illness, and I want people to know that.”
Earlier this week, I talked to Perkins from Florida, where she lives with her family during spring training.
MinnPost: How long have you been experiencing anxiety?
Alisha Perkins: I feel like I’ve been experiencing anxiety it my whole life but never to the point where I couldn’t keep it under control. But then a few years ago I became a mother, and when you’re in charge of two little people, things take on a whole different shape.
I remember the first time my anxiety really got out of control. Addison, my oldest, was just a year old. My next-door neighbor and I were visiting one day and she said, “Did you hear about what happened last night?” She said a lady who lived on the next block was raped. Her husband went to work in the morning and left the front door unlocked. She was sleeping, and a neighbor’s kid broke in, put his hand over her mouth, held a knife to her throat and raped her. Her daughter was sleeping in the next room.
This panicked feeling came over me. I thought, “What if that was me? What if my daughter was sleeping down the hall?” I became obsessed with that story. From that moment, I couldn’t sleep at home alone. When Glen was gone, my mom had to come over and sleep with me.
When I talked to my mom about my worries, she said, “Maybe you should talk to somebody.” I started seeing a therapist who said, “I think you have anxiety.”
That was an a-ha moment for me. It explained everything. I went home and told my mom. She said, “I’ve been on medication for anxiety. Your aunts, your cousins are on medication for it.” I was like, “Why is nobody is talking about it? This is a big deal. You have to know when something like this is in your family, for God’s sake.”
MP: Why didn’t they talk about it? Were they ashamed?
AP: It’s just that generation. They didn’t see therapists. They didn’t talk about it, so I guess they were ashamed. But I’ve always been very open and honest with my family and friends.
I never felt like my anxiety disorder was something I should hide or be ashamed of: It was bigger than me. I am a Type A person — If I could control it, I would’ve.
MP: Can you describe how acute anxiety feels for you?
AP: Everybody’s anxiety experience is different. I have no problem getting on a plane, for instance, and I know that planes trigger anxiety for lots of people. But that’s one place I don’t mind being out of control.
My therapist explained that the anxiety I struggle with the most is called the “double-noose” effect. It works like this: First, I start feeling anxious about something, and the noose slips over my head. It feels like it is choking me. Like with the case of the lady who was raped, I’d start thinking, “Oh my God. I could be next. How can I protect myself?” I am panicking. Then I have this other noose that slides over the first one. It is my logical brain that says, “This is crazy. He wasn’t after you. You are safe.” But I’m stuck in the middle, spiraling because I can’t take either noose off. I’d just go crazy. When my therapist explained it, that image totally made sense to me. That’s exactly how I feel when my anxiety gets really bad.
MP: That sounds scary. Did your therapist suggest ways to cope with these feelings?
AP: She mentioned that I could treat my condition with meds, but being type A and stubborn, I said, “I can do this on my own. I’m only here to see you, not for the meds.” She was supportive of that. She said, “We can teach you different strategies, like meditation and breathing exercises, things can work on to cope with your anxiety.”
For two years that’s how it went. With her help, I felt that I was doing OK. Not great, but OK.
MP: You’ve since written that you now take medication to treat your anxiety disorder. What made you change your mind?
AP: I remember the day that things finally came to a head. It was right after I had our second daughter. I was still seeing my therapist once a week. I was managing, but after Lyla, my anxiety started to get worse. It was right after Christmas, and it was snowing. We were driving to my parents’ house. They live only three miles away. Glen was driving. I remember freaking out during the whole car ride, white knuckles, fists balled.
I had this irrational fear that Glen was going to get in an accident with us all in the car. By the time we got to my parents’, I was close to a full-blown panic attack. When we pulled into the driveway, I looked at him and said, “I have to go on medication.” Right after the first of the year I went in and saw my OB and laid it out for her. She was willing to write me a prescription.
MP: How did you respond to the medication?
AP: The hard part about anxiety meds is they don’t have an accurate way to test what neurotransmitters you are missing, so it’s a luck-of-the-draw thing. With me, the doctor suggested a medication that tends to work well for females my age and said, “Let’s give it a shot.”
She started me off on Lexapro. I took the lowest dose. I said, “How do I know it’s working?” The doctor said, “Basically over the next month or two you’ll start to think, ‘I haven’t been feeling as overwhelmed.’ If we don’t get to that point, we’ll have to try you on a different medication.”
Within a month of starting on Lexapro, I could tell it was working. I felt that for the first time, I could keep myself at a good emotional level, and I could really use what I was learning in therapy. And I did not have any major side effects. I was very lucky. I got tired a lot in the beginning, but that went away. It was the only side effect I experienced.
MP: How has your husband reacted to you diagnosis and treatment?
AP: Glen and I are opposites. Nothing rattles him. That probably explains why he so good at his job. He doesn’t get nervous or anxious. He just rolls with the punches.
We’ll have been married for 10 years in December. He’s always struggled to understand my anxiety. When something was bothering me, he’d say, “Just stop worrying.” I’d say, “Don’t you think if I could I would?” It’s hard to explain anxiety to people who don’t have it. It doesn’t seem logical to them.
But Glen has always been super-supportive. He’s done his best to deal with me when I’m at my peak. Because he’s not an anxious person, he’s sympathetic to my anxiety, but he can’t be empathetic. That’s hard because sometimes he wants to tell me to suck it up, but it just doesn’t work that way.
Glen has never questioned why I have to see a therapist or why I have to go on medication. In fact, when I was struggling emotionally but resisting taking medication, Glen said, “I have high cholesterol. I can’t do anything about it. It’s not something I created for myself. It just happened. To control my cholesterol, I take a drug. If you take your drug, you will get better.”
MP: Are there other strategies beyond medication that you use for controlling your anxiety?
AP: Running has become an outlet for me. Before my diagnosis, I would run two miles every once in a while — just so I could eat chocolate. Then, a few years ago, when we were in Florida, I went out for a run. I needed to get out of the house. I had been alone with the kids and was feeling stressed and cooped up. I ran my usual two miles, but then I realized, “I can’t go home yet. I’m still stressed.” So I kept running and ended up going five miles.
I swear that for me it takes four miles for the runner’s high to kick in. After four miles, something happened. I came back home and for the first time in my life I felt calm.
Now I notice that if I go too long without running, I start picking fights. Glen’ll say, “When’s the last time you went for a run?” He calls me his little English Springer Spaniel. I learned I have to run it out. It’s made a huge difference.
There were even times when I tried to wean myself of Lexapro to see if I could just treat my anxiety with running. Turns out that I couldn’t do that. For me, running is more of a stress reliever than an anxiety reliever.
MP: If you had a magic wand, what would you do to change attitudes about mental illness?
AP: I wish the general public took mental illness more seriously. It is no different than a physical aliment or a chronic illness. It is a life-long struggle. Just because there’s not a physical test to show you have a mental illness, that doesn’t mean that it’s not real. That part really frustrates me.
Right now all I’m doing is telling you how I feel. I can’t prove to you that I have anxiety. If I had cancer, I could pull up at PET scan and say, “Here is my cancer.” Right now I can’t show you a scan and say, “Here is my mental illness.” You just have to take my word for it.