With the new year beginning just a few days ago, I’m trying to keep up with reading Demi Lovato’s book, “Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year.” It’s only a few days in, but I’m going to try. Today’s page related to reaching out to others, to help others, as Demi did in publicly discussing her struggles with issues such as self-harm, in the hope that by discussing these struggles, others who are dealing with them may be more likely to seek help or be willing to talk about their own issues. It is in this vein of thought that I decided today to sit down and write about my own experience with mental health, depression, stress, social anxiety and other issues, in the hope that maybe even just one person will read my story and be a little less afraid to seek the help they may need. I know that other people have it worse than I do; I know I have a lot to be thankful for, and my struggles have definitely taught me a lot. I never struggled with self-harm, but depression was something that plagued me for a long time. But depression doesn’t mean you always have a dark cloud over your head; sometimes it gets a little lighter and you think things are going better, until they aren’t anymore – at least, that’s what it was for me.
Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a stigma associated with mental illness. And quite frankly, having a mental illness can be embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to be unable to complete a seemingly simple task and to have to tell someone “I’m sorry, my mind was in a very bad place today and I just couldn’t handle it without breaking down.” It’s embarrassing to leave a job because of your mental or emotional state, perhaps unrelated to the job completely. So we come up with excuses, other things to tell people, lies to cover our issues and ways to get around the things that we may be struggling with. There’s also the issues that these words are thrown around so carelessly nowadays; people have one bad day and immediately say things like “Ugh, I’m depressed.” But depression is a serious issue, recurring over time and it’s not something to be taken lightly.
But none of this helps; it doesn’t address the issues, it doesn’t bring them out into the open and it further envelopes things in this stigma where many people associate mental illness with being weak, sickly, childish, etc. or allowing people to think of mental illness as something that can just be swept under the rug to be dealt with when it’s convenient. Mental illness is never convenient, but it’s something we as individuals, as communities, as a society, must deal with. Now.
This is my story, and I hope you’ll join me along the way. Though my struggles are not over – and perhaps depression and anxiety are things that I may deal with in some way every day for the rest of my life – I feel more positive, more able to cope and ready to share my story in the hope that it may help even one person somewhere in the world.
I remember when it all began – it was December 2010. Things had been slowly going downhill; I was trying to maintain a long-distance relationship of sorts that was definitely not healthy when I reflect back on it now. We broke up time and time again and over a period of probably a year and a half, that situation was definitely a contributor to my issues, though it wasn’t the only issue I dealt with. I had very little self-confidence; I had trust issues in friendships and other relationships, and I had other issues, too. In addition to dealing with all of that, I had been attending classes full-time and working part-time and also maintaining a position on the campus newspaper.
I left the campus newspaper in December 2010 because I could feel things starting to fall too heavily on me, could feel my emotions going in a bad place and knew that of all the things in my life I could control, that was the easiest one that I could drop without much consequence. I couldn’t quit my job and I couldn’t stop going to classes – I knew those things would affect my future far too much. But leaving the newspaper, I felt, would at least relieve some of the stress I was feeling and maybe allow me to focus on getting my mental health in shape without leaving too much of an impact on the rest of my life.
It’s not that I had too much on my plate – I definitely didn’t. I loved the business of it all, the work, the classes, all of it. If there’s one thing I’ve always been good at, it was being a student, and depression didn’t change that. But I felt the struggle. I felt the days where everything was pressing down on me, all my emotions and expectations and relationship troubles and friendship struggles and it all just started to feel like too much.
So I left the campus newspaper. I didn’t tell them the truth as to my reason for leaving; I said that I wanted to focus on getting an internship in my chosen field. Of course, that was a lie. I left so I could focus on my mental health, so I could try to work on feeling better, because already at that point I felt it getting bad and I knew this was not a path I wanted to go down.
Fast forward to February 2011. That’s when I first began seeing a counselor, on campus at school. It helped – it certainly did help, to a point. I was able to talk about things that concerned me, talk about my everyday life, my struggles, the things on my mind… anything. It was good to have someone, an unbiased outsider, who would listen to me and offer her thoughts and suggestions. And it was certainly helpful, until the semester ended in May and my counseling thus stopped.
But hey, I figured I was getting better. I figured I did my share of counseling and I’d be fine from here on out. And I was, for a short time, I honestly did feel like things were more bearable… until they weren’t. Until I started to feel everything weighing on me again and decided that it was probably a good idea to seek counseling again. It was the middle of the summer, but I was able to get into an external counselor outside of school.
I think I attended all of maybe three sessions there. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, that counselor. She listened to me, yes, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me. She listened and offered suggestions to help me, and once again I really did feel like I’d acquired some skills that were helping me make things better. I stopped going, partly because I thought I’d be okay, and partly because it just didn’t feel like a good fit.
Once again, I strung myself along for a couple months, figuring things were bearable enough, until they weren’t again. I felt hopeless, I felt stressed, I felt weak, I had nightmares about dying and leaving all of everything that plagued me behind. It was February 2012 when I began going to another counselor at school, and it was a good fit. I was also working part-time and attending classes full-time, and in addition to individual counseling, I started going to a group, Peaceful Minds.
It was great – definitely outside of my comfort zone, meeting with a group of about ten or so individuals and a couple of counselors. It wasn’t a group counseling session, however; the meetings focused on learning skills that we could use to manage stress, deal with problems, etc. Mindfulness was one of the topics I specifically remember learning about. Sometimes we went to the planetarium and learned about meditation, other times we did worksheets and activities and it was a refreshing change from everything else. I still attended individual sessions on the side, and I think this was a big step for me. I’ve never been a very sociable person and it was something new, something different for me, and it was good. I think I made a lot of improvements over those months, before both the individual and group endeavors ended as the semester did.
I suppose it would be May 2012 when I began seeing an outside counselor again. I went for a few months before I stopped – again. I honestly don’t remember too much about that endeavor, or even who the counselor I was seeing at that point was, but it happened, until probably July or August of that year when I figured I was feeling and doing better. Sure, I still had some issues, but I could deal with those on my own, right?
I know what anyone’s going to say. They’re going to say “Well, you shouldn’t have stopped going all those times!” And that’s absolutely true. Sometimes I stopped because of unfortunate circumstances, like the end of the semester. Sometimes I just felt like things were more bearable and I thought I was wasting my time. But writing all of this down now, I realize how it all looks, how many different counselors I’ve seen over a stretch of just a few years. People will blame me for not putting myself out there when I felt social anxiety hitting me. People will say that if I felt like having no friends was an issue that made me have self-doubt and self-confidence issues, I should have put myself out there more. People will blame me for trying to maintain friendships and relationships that ended up being harmful and stressful to myself. But I did what I felt was right for myself at the time, and there’s no going back on that now.
Cycle around to November 2012. Things started to feel stressful. My social anxiety was pressing down on me like never before; I couldn’t go into certain situations where I knew I might see people I had been friends with in the past or had had drama with in the past without getting so shaky and having an upset stomach and wanting, frankly, to vomit all over everything. I was doubting my friendships, stressing about relationships (or lack thereof), dealing with the pressure of entering adulthood and wanting everything to just WORK OUT FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE. I was having bad thoughts that I knew were not healthy. I was not suicidal but I felt utterly hopeless and weak and unable to deal with things in a healthy way that most people are able to.
I started seeing a counselor again, and this time, I stuck with it for just over a year.
That was the turning point for me, that year. I learned a lot about myself, my worth, my friendships, my relationships and a lot of other topics in that time. I tried to practice the skills I had learned in the group I had attended so many months ago. I tried to deal with things as they came up rather than let them build as I had in the past. I started surrounding myself with more positive people and dealing with issues rather than pushing them back until they worsened. Even when I started to feel like things were better and I probably didn’t need counseling anymore, I stuck with it and kept going (though we stretched out the time between appointments) because I didn’t want to go back into the cycles I had before.
And things have improved; they certainly have. I feel genuinely better about things now and I feel like I’ve acquired all these valuable skills that are going to allow me to deal with things now and in the future. I’ve surrounded myself with good people and I’ll work on continuing that; maybe I’ll even be able to connect with someone on a romantic level in a healthy relationship. I’ve learned how to start targeting and dealing with social anxiety, and I’m making forward strides to progress in all sorts of aspects in my life.
I’m determined to make this my best year yet. I know that every day may not be easy; some days, I will struggle. There may be bad weeks, there may be times when I feel the old emotions and old thoughts of the years past creeping up on me, when I wonder if it’s my depression rearing its ugly head or maybe I’m just reflecting too much on the past and getting myself caught up in it (which is something I’m working on NOT doing!) I know that every day may not be great, but there will be great things in most days if I look for them. I know that it’s okay to have bad days. I know that I am not alone, and I hope anyone reading this knows that they are not alone, either.
So this is my story, or as much of it as I can write down right now. I hope that anyone who reads this will know that mental illness is not something ashamed of. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Don’t expect to cure someone on your own, even if they’re your significant other; you cannot expect to “fix” someone just by dating them.
Know that mental illness is a serious issue and if you’re struggling, you can get help and things can get better. Getting help – it helps. Talking about it, whether to a friend, a family member, a counselor – it helps. For myself, writing all of this out has been a great therapeutic process and although I’m scared as hell to press that “publish” button because I don’t know who’s going to read this and who might judge me or think differently of me afterwards – I’m going to do it, because I want someone to read this and know that things can get better, and recognizing that you may need some help doesn’t make you weak or sick or anything like that. If anything, it makes you incredibly strong.
Although the way I went about things – starting counseling, stopping whenever I felt okay, then having to start up again – wasn’t the best or the brightest idea, I think it’s important that I was able to recognize multiple times that I needed to seek help, and I wasn’t afraid to do it. It saddens me to think of how many people out there may be struggling but are unwilling or unable to seek help because they’re scared to reach out, or worried about being judged, or have some other reason for not seeking the help that may honestly help them.
No matter how dark things may seem now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and you can reach it. And above all else, I promise, you are not alone.
I am not a success story – I am a work in progress. We are all works in progress. And sometimes you need to rip out all the pages and start again; sometimes you wish you could erase everything you’ve written before, but you can’t. Even if you try, there will still be those ugly pencil markings that are inevitably left behind. But keep writing your story, keep working on it, keep moving forward. You can do it.