I think it’s time I started talking about my mental health.
I want to own up to what I experience, not so that you will feel bad for me, but so that if you are going through something similar, you will know that you’re not alone. I want this blog to be a place where I can share my experience.
Besides, I’m tired of keeping this part of me zipped up because it’s a major part of my life. It’s me!
Like lots of people, my mental health journey has been a winding one. Over the course of ten years, when my first bout of depression cropped up, I have been misdiagnosed, mismedicated, misunderstood, but also showered with heaps of kindness and understanding. For that I am very grateful.
I have major depression and anxiety disorder. Sometimes I’m comfortable in my own skin, I eat vegetables, I go on bike rides, I socialize, I write, and don’t criticize myself. Some days I feel absolutely crushed with despair, like a feeling of hopelessness is going to web through my body and weigh me down until I melt into the ground.
Leaving my house causes me a massive amount of anxiety, to the point that sometimes I stay home and don’t attend things I want to because I am too worried about what will happen when I am out of my comfort zone. Even at home, I am plagued with irrational, worst-case scenarios that play themselves on a loop in my brain. For example, I can’t sleep on my back because I worry I’ll swallow my tongue and choke to death in my sleep. I have to unplug all major appliances before I leave the house or else I won’t be able to shake the fear that I’ll lose everything in an electrical fire. I have to check with my boyfriend any time we travel to root me in the practical:
“So you’re sure the cats are okay?“
"So you’re sure everything’s turned off?”
“So you’re sure nothing will catch fire?”
Sometimes, when I’m doing something unrelated, my mind will start worrying about different ways I could (and just might) meet my end: slipping in the shower, getting hit by a bus, getting crushed in a trash compactor, falling down a flight of stairs, knocking all my teeth out, and then choking on them, getting sliced in half exiting an elevator, and so on.
I have a lot of pet-related triggers, too. For instance, I have to check my oven and microwave over and over any time I cook or bake to make sure I am not accidentally baking my cats to death. My boyfriend does laundry; when I do, I can’t stop worrying I’ll accidentally drown one of my pets. Ditto with the dishwasher. I have to check the door when I leave the apartment to make sure I didn’t let a pet out. These pet-related triggers likely stem from an incident where I ran over and killed one of our tamed farm cats in high school. Even though the cats cause me a lot of stress, they also comfort me in ways a human can’t. In fact, during my second major depression, it was saving and rescuing my cat Janis that kept suicide ideation at bay. I’ll write more about the importance of pets with mental health in another post.
Anyway, these are the obsessive thoughts that I deal with every day. Some days I worry less than other days. The actual likelihood of these terrible events happening to me doesn’t balance out with the amount of stress they cause. Even though the rational part of me knows this, once the loop starts, it’s hard to get it to stop.
When I’m really anxious, the fear follows me into my sleep. A few times a month, I have nightmares of a shadow man leaning over my bed and I wake up screaming. (Apparently, this is sleep paralysis, and lots of people have it. Fun…!)
I love people, but I deal with a ton of social anxiety, too. I will replay entire conversations over and over in my head after the fact, terrified that I made a fool of myself. I replay these exchanges for days and months beyond the actual event, and they get bigger and more menacing, to the point where I am certain I made an awful impression. I agonize over replying to texts, I have panic attacks when returning phone calls, I throw up after (or during!) big events.
My inner critic is very harsh. I am a perfectionist: excellent when writing papers or owning your own editing business (which I do, by the way, hey!) but it becomes quite self-sabotaging outside of that. I start ventures and then get disgusted with myself for not performing perfectly… and then I give up.
When I am in a very dark place, I succumb to vicious and evil self-talk, and it compounds and spirals, like “Oh you didn’t go to that poetry reading even though you wanted to, no you didn’t because you’re so fucking scared and weak and cowardly and fat and ugly and worthless and your poems are shit, and nobody loves you because you’re so evil and ugly and all you do is make mistakes, and everyone is just pretending to like you but really everyone thinks you’re a fucking joke, a fucking entitled fat joke, and you drink too much and you’re mean to your mother and you’re a fucking fake fat phony and you’re bad at sex and your tattoos are stupid and you’re ugly and a shit writer and no one likes you and you deserve it.”
In times like this, the only way I can “release” these harmful thoughts is to scream, beat my head on the wall, cut up my skin, pick at my pores, pinch my skin until it bruises, or drink. That’s what I want to do first, at least. But I try to replace this self-harm with healthier outlets, like going on a long walk, or taking a cold shower, or texting my best friends, or writing a poem, or painting, or doing some deep breathing and yoga. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I have seen three different psychologists in ten years. I have also had three major depressive episodes in my life. The first one was when I was fifteen, and my parents sent me to substance abuse counseling. I don’t blame them for this because I know they didn’t know what to do with me, neck-deep in high school rebellion. I am thankful that they cared. But the whole experience was bad, since I felt so out of control. The way I was treated in counseling was patronizing, too. For instance, my counselor gave me seashells when I would have “good weeks,” because I couldn’t be “trusted” with anything else. The whole experience was filled with a lot of shame and I hated every second of it. I can’t even remember what my therapist looked like.
The second major depression began when I was eighteen. I elected to go back into therapy myself because I had moved out right after graduating high school, I hadn’t gotten into the college I wanted, my grandpa had died. I felt aimless. That psychologist diagnosed me first as having major depression, and put me on Lexapro after just one visit. Lexapro made me feel dangerous, so then she changed her diagnosis to rapid cycling bipolar disorder, and put me on Lamictal, a mood-stabilizing drug. Lamictal made me feel like an empty ship bobbing along in the bay. I no longer wanted to die, but I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t not want to do anything. I was the definition of “DGAF.” I didn’t write, didn’t finish my college homework, didn’t do anything but party and sleep and work. Even now it is hard to remember that time because I was so out of it, so unplugged from myself. At one point I stopped taking all medication and stopped going to that therapist entirely (DO NOT DO THIS). Coming off of the medication so abruptly was its own beast, and writing and painting got me through it. (Again, please don’t do this. If you dislike a counselor or medication, you have options that are better and much safer than quitting both cold turkey.)
The third bout of depression began around the time I graduated from college. I was disillusioned because I loved college, the “future freaked me out,” and my plans for what I’d do after college weren’t working out as flawlessly as I had planned (surprise surprise!). I had stopped smoking weed, but I had started drinking a lot to compensate, and one night I hurt myself badly enough that I knew I needed to find someone to talk to.
The therapist I found is amazing, my favorite one yet. I’m lucky to get to work with her almost every week. For the first time, I have felt like I’m a part of my recovery. It is hard, and sometimes I feel miserable. But mostly, I feel a lot of support and love with this approach. I am proud of myself for taking the initiative and getting help. I have waves of emotion and I try and write through them. I am open about therapy with my family. I am still depressed, but I am trying to be gentler.
For a long time I thought (and the people around me thought) that I should use therapy and medicine until I “got better,” and then sweep it under the rug and “get back to normal.” I understand now that that’s not the right approach. I will never not have depression. I will never not have anxiety. I will never not have obsessive compulsive thoughts. But every day I can acknowledge this part of me, invite it in, and work on it. Breathe life and light into it. I try to let go of guilt and ask for help when I am struggling.
This is just the tip of the gigantic iceberg that is my mental health experience. I want to tell you more about it. I want to tell you more about my own journey. I want to share coping methods that are healthy and that I find useful. I want to tell you what to do when someone else has depression/anxiety and what you should and shouldn’t say. I want to explain what a panic attack feels like.
I want to tell you all of this, and in time I will. But for now this brutal honesty is enough to get used to. I just wanted to get a snippet of my story out there. If you have ever felt this way, if leaving your house overwhelms you, if sometimes you really feel like you could crawl out of your own skin, know that I am here, and I get it, I know how you feel.