I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to disappear. I remember staring out of my bedroom window, looking down at the snow and imagining myself falling into it, sinking deep beneath the vast whiteness, until I was completely covered over, frozen and blissfully numb. I wanted to feel nothing because every emotion that I did feel was just too intense to bear.
That desire to turn off my emotions stayed with me for most of my adult life—for nearly twenty years. I took all the pain of fake friends (the “cornflake girls” or “mean girls”) and bad, meaningless relationships, including a sexual assault that I blamed myself for, and shoved it down as far as I could. I became the very thing that I hated—a liar. I hid my true self behind a mask every day because I was desperate to conceal the turmoil inside me. I spent an excessive amount of money and time on expensive clothes I couldn’t afford and on perfecting my outward appearance because I was determined that no one would see what was really going on with me. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? If you feel bad, you’re supposed to just suck it up and get over it. When someone asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to say “OK” or “good” or some other positive word regardless of whether you’re genuinely feeling that way. I put up walls to protect myself, to stop anyone hurting me again, to keep people from seeing through the carefully crafted facade, and to keep myself from feeling for them because the last thing I wanted was to feel someone else’s pain on top of my own.
Despite my efforts, I could never completely turn off my emotions, even when I tried to drown them in alcohol. All of the negative thoughts and feelings that I kept locked up inevitably escaped, often in the form of anger or tears.
Depression is a secret, silent predator because it strikes from within. It eats you alive. Depression coupled with anxiety is absolutely paralyzing, like screaming in silence. The longer conditions like these are left untreated, the worse they get. You become stuck in quicksand and you can’t even move or try to pull yourself out because you just sink deeper and faster. It took having panic attacks at work to scare me into finally talking to my doctor and then a therapist and a psychiatrist about what I was going through.
That was five years ago. I’m still seeing a psychiatrist and have been through a series of reiki healing sessions, but am proud to say that thanks to other changes that I’ve been able to make in my life, including a complete rehaul of my diet and beginning an exercise regimen, my medication dosage has been stepped down to the lowest level. Allow me to pause here to say that taking medication to ameliorate symptoms of a mental health condition is not a bad thing. In my case, my doctor, my therapist, and my psychiatrist all agreed that my specific depression and anxiety were situational, that in order to really battle them, I had to be able to change my lifestyle. I couldn’t have done that without the immensely helpful boost that medication gave me. But not all mental health conditions are the same; causes as well as treatments are unique to the individual, so needing medication or higher doses of it should not be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of progress. What I’ve learned in my recovery process is that there are two things that are vital for all of us to have good mental health: self-care and a supportive environment.
Self-care means taking care of yourself on all levels—nourishing your mind, body, and soul. I didn’t really start doing that until a year and a half ago. When I did, it kicked my healing into overdrive. Things that have helped me are eating healthier, exercising daily, meditating, spending time in nature, finding a good work-life balance, and making time for things that I enjoy doing like writing. For me, maintaining that creative outlet is essential.
Apart from taking care of yourself, you also have to surround yourself with genuinely supportive people who have your best interests in mind, ones who aren’t deaf and blind to your pain or contribute to it, but recognize when something is off and encourage you to talk openly about whatever you are feeling. They will do seemingly little but incredibly meaningful things like say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you seem down/stressed? Tell me what’s going on” or “How can I help?” For a long time, I lacked those sort of relationships or kept myself from having them out of fear of incurring further pain. Now that I do have them, I foster and cherish them.
There is one other thing that I believe is essential to coping with and changing the perception of mental health conditions and that is to talk openly about them and encourage others to do the same. There is still such a tremendous stigma attached to mental health conditions, but we can collectively change that. If those of us who have experienced these issues share our stories, first with each other and then with the world at large, then we can tear up the labels that ignorant, insensitive souls want to assign us. There will be no more screaming in silence but a chorus of voices too loud and beautiful to ignore.