As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, here’s my story, shared in the hopes that it can shine some light onto a path leading toward wellness and contentment. At least, away from pain.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Those diagnoses were a long time coming. I have memories of dips into regular depressive episodes beginning at age 11 and can identify an underlying feeling of concern–over what? Everything and nothing–for just as long.
For the better part of two decades, an overactive, insecurity-based people pleasing tendency of mine forced me to make it look like I had my shit together, that there wasn’t something wrong with me that I could sense but never articulate. I worked hard to present as what I thought a normal person would look like: dependable at work, organized at school, tidy at home, fun during happy hour. It was easier to bullshit the world into thinking everything was fine than scratching the itch of my constant state of worry. Occasional trips to a therapist’s office while in school gave me tools to manage contained, superficial issues but I didn’t want to say, didn’t know I could say, didn’t think I’d be believed when I’d tell the whole truth: that I felt like shit all the time.
Two years ago, I was honest with my doctor, who put me on medication and sent me to another therapist, one who I was forced to address the big, harry issues with. (Hard to bullshit your therapist when your dad, with whom your relationship is complicated as best, is on death’s door.) Things have changed for the better, thanks in part to medication, sobriety, routine, exercise, a mostly plant-based diet. The work of my lifetime will be to uncover and resolve whatever burdens I carry that contribute to my anxiety and depression, but I feel better equipped now than ever to make the effort.
Here’s the point: The portrayals of mental illness and addiction in pop culture can keep us from not just getting help, but acknowledging that things are wrong. I was never an unemployed drunk who couldn’t drag herself out of bed, or who self-harmed in acute ways, or who had regular debilitating panic attacks–all in part because that’s not how my mental illness manifests. How it manifests, I see now, is in my preoccupation with control, of presenting myself as perfect and fine and independent and self-sufficient and normal. That’s still a shitty way to live. Because even if we can hold down school, a job, relationships, make rent or mortgage payments and meal prep and hit the gym and all that shit, we can still suffer. We may be coping in dangerous ways. I suffered for a long time even though I worked hard to convince myself and others that everything was fine.