My Journey, as they say

The post is here and it’s going to be long and maybe triggering? So I warn you, there will be talk of anxiety, depression, self-harm (my opinion post on trigger warnings is coming soon, y’all! But now you know where I stand).

My little lost moment

It’s been a hot second since my last confession on this site. I haven’t the faintest real excuse for my absence. As I’ve learned from many creative writing professors, there are no excuses in real life. But this absence from writing only reveals the truth about me. Without writing or creating I am not myself. I slink into a deep vat of boiling depression. My promise at the end of my last post left me with the obligation to write something wholehearted and true about my depression and it scared me. So I didn’t sit down to write anything. Ironically, it put me back there. I signed myself up for displaying to the World Wide Internet my life’s story so far and how that hot vat of sadness has been burning at me for many years now. It’s difficult to wrap my head around my depression and even more so to put it into writing, despite my library of journal logs about my weekly therapy sessions. So I just ignored it for a while. I put a lot of pressure on myself this past month. I’ve actually been doing it my whole life and it seems to have an ever-present negative effect on my productivity. I’ve always told myself to be the best in class, to be the hardest worker, the best writer, the funniest friend. Setting myself up for that has only caused myself great pain. I count my failures, the unfinished stories, my lists of lost friends, my bad grades, my lazy days in bed. They add up and they equal my depression.

It’s important for those of us who have experienced the mild to insane anhedonic moment to speak out about our depressions when we’re ready, whether that be publicly or to a friend. It’s necessary to do so in order to de-stigmatize mental health. I started this blog with my pal Juliette knowing full well that this post would come one day. I knew it would be difficult to write but I didn’t expect to walk away from it bloated with a migraine and a small amount of nausea. I’ve edited out a few bits that I’m only okay to keep between me and my pets. I wanted to provide total honesty, I think that is deserved if I’m taking it upon myself to be one of some outspoken depressed-anxious folks. But there are some places in my mind that are too fragile to open up to anyone.

So it should be sort of apparent that I am having a lovely day seeing as I am writing. Isn’t it sort of sad that I have to channel my sadness when I’m most happy? I think so.

Apology for my absence aside, here’s my fractured story. It’s still a long one.

My story

The most definitive memory of the beginning of my depression and anxiety started with therapy. My mom set me up with a therapist in tenth grade after I asked, timidly, for her help. At least I think I asked for help. That part is a little blurry. A little later she called me with the date of my first appointment. I cried at the recognition between us that I was not okay. That was the most clear. I was not okay.

balletMy anxiety started long before I knew it was anxiety, before I hit puberty, before I met my therapist and had my life altering panic attack. It started with horror movie trailers and delirious visits to the hospital in second grade when I thought my name was Alice. I learned that the world was a scary place and that my body was even scarier, so fragile and untrustworthy at times.

I learned to be a nervous girl through other peoples fears. I learned to hate heights on top of the ferris wheel, feeling my mom grip our legs in terror as our cart rolled up to the top. I started hating spiders when Ron Weasley encountered his worse fear in the Forbidden Forest. I learned that I should avoid all dark and empty streets as a girl and shouldn’t trust strangers with candy. They’re some of the basics, but fear feeds the anxiety.

I thought my depression was gone because I wasn’t alone anymore.

I do remember a time when I wasn’t afraid of everything. I didn’t mind plane rides to Florida and I hadn’t seen the drain scene in It yet. I remember walking up the stairs in my twirly green skirt at my first dance recital in 2002, looking out at the other dancers in puffy tutus and thinking, that’s the rehearsal part of the theater and I’m up next to rehearse. There was no crowd yet, no eyes on me. Just rehearsal, as usual. So I rehearsed, constantly looking over to side stage to see my instructor Miss Maryanne doing the choreography alongside us, showing us our next pas de deux. I wasn’t scared the first time I saw the audience. I wasn’t aware of being self conscious yet. But I learned to hate being in front of the audience in my tight leotards as I got older, as my boobs got bigger and my hair was a home-cut-bangs mess.

My stage anxiety kept me from showing myself off. It kept me from reading some of my best writing in front of my high school peers, from playing my guitar and singing and dancing and talking in front of people. It’s why I was so quiet at the lunch table and why I never did a dance solo. It’s why someone called me boring once and why I developed an inferiority complex. I missed a lot because I had anxiety and I didn’t even know it existed. I thought I was just shy.

The feeling I got on stage, the racing heart, the hot cheeks and short breath happened to me in the classroom for the first time in seventh grade. A teacher called on me and I had an anxiety attack. Everyone knew and saw me, awful and ugly and scared. I couldn’t leave. I was stuck. I spent my school days in total nervousness sitting in class, fearful of being called on and not having a quick answer to get me out of the hot seat. I spent my time fearing another attack, fearing fear itself. I couldn’t pay attention therefore I couldn’t have the answer to get me out of there. I woke up in the morning and drank a dangerous amount of water to justify feeling too ill to go to school.

“My stomach hurts,” I told my parents after twenty big gulps from the bathroom sink. These were my first attempts at self-harm and endangerment. Drowning my cells so I didn’t risk my history teacher’s dogged questions.

My depression came not long after. I wasn’t socializing like I should have, stuck in my anxious state. The depression spurred from a well of loneliness that came from seeing everyone’s Facebook posts, photos of five-way video chats and parties in consenting parents basements, happily flushed faces and hickies on their necks. I was never invited but I also never asked. I didn’t know I could ask to hang out with people for fear of being rejected. I thought no one would want to hang out with me. I was lonely, so I was depressed. It would take me four years to find help in tenth grade.

I lost a shitton of weight before tenth grade and came back to school skinny. I don’t new york picremember much of the year because my life became a fucking mess. I remember the new attention from my friends and from boys. A guy told me I lost weight and that I looked good. Later that day I ate my bagged lunch, an orange and a Laughing Cow spreadable cheese wedge. On the school trip to Harlem with my new photogenic face in the city, I ate only salad at Sylvia’s soul food. My value and my social life became my body and that had to be protected. I did everything I could to protect what I thought was happiness, the cheekbones, the new friends, the company. The absence of loneliness. I thought my depression was gone because I wasn’t alone anymore.

But she came back manifested as anxiety and she was a bitch. Technically, on a psychological level, I suppressed everything that caused me pain which only caused me further pain. Everything went blank. A big part of my life is a total blur, like a six-month black out. All I remember is a ride to my sisters new college in Lancaster feeling like I was on drugs. The cows and cornfields passed by me too fast to hold onto. The feeling like the world was going to end with the change of the radio station. Everything was coming in around me. I don’t remember speaking and I don’t remember coming home. I don’t remember anything that happened before or after the trip. I just remember the music that played, that music still difficult to listen to now.

My first full blown panic attack happened at Quaker meeting. I had been going to weekly Quaker meetings since kindergarten at my Quaker K-12. I was no stranger to the quiet and contemplative forty-five minutes. I enjoyed listening to people’s thoughtful words and praised their confidence to stand up in front of the entire high school. Some talked about personal struggle, something I should have been able to speak out about but was inhibited by my stage anxiety and the general consensus that depression shouldn’t be talked about.

The panic attack came on like the familiar burning sensation but worse. I flinched dramatically at the uncomfortable sensation and hid the flinch by pretending to take my  coat off. My heart was racing and I sat there hoping those next to me, behind me and all around me couldn’t hear it. I was stuck, like in the classroom but even more so. I couldn’t stand up to go to the bathroom because I would be seen. I sat in the silence and experienced a panic attack all alone with four hundred people around me.

After a few more anxious tries at meeting, I stopped going and didn’t go back for another year and a half. My mom and I spoke to the principal who granted me permission to spend that time in my mom’s classroom or the nurses office. But she encouraged and expected me to go back soon. She informed the school counselor about my condition and he stopped me in the hallways many times to ask if I was okay enough to go back to meeting. He gave me expected looks that meant I needed to go back to meeting soon. I knew of other people feeling uncomfortable around the counselor. He harassed the distraught in order to feel like he was doing his job. He stopped me while friends walked past. He didn’t treat me or my anxiety with respect and expected a note from my therapist who I had just started seeing after my panic attack.

The beginning of healing

My therapist was a GODSEND. Over many many sessions, my therapist was able to comb out my insecurities and dark thoughts.  She gave me some of the most difficult challenges of my life that taught me to cope with my issues.

(Just a side note, I was extremely privileged to be in a family that approved of therapy and even payed for it. I was able to freely mention I had therapy once a week without stigma at home. I was never met with challenging questions over why I was going and what I was talking about. My parents were nice enough to pay for my first few years of therapy, which accumulates to a large burden. I am forever grateful for that and never forget others may not be so lucky).

My first session with my therapist was extremely awkward. It isn’t something I ever wish to experience ever again, which is a good reason to keep going. Therapy is always a strange experience for most of us who have learned to hold everything in, for those of us who could never make eye contact or speak fluid sentences. I was extremely uncomfortable; there were long and awkward pauses when she expected to get things out of me. The more I felt awkward the more I would make myself talk. It was very smart.

She asked me simple questions first session: “How are you?” and “What brings you here today?” I couldn’t get out many words before bursting into tears, real tears that no one had ever seen before. It was an out of body experience learning to cry in front of a stranger and learning to take the time to let it out before speaking again. I didn’t know I was in such a ravaged state of mind.

“Maybe they’re tears of joy?” I said and I think she was amused.

“No,” she said. I knew it was wrong when I said it.

There was a big learning curve in therapy. I eventually learned how to cry in front of someone, to wear little mascara on session days, to make sure I ate before or else my stomach will growl, triggering Quaker Meeting flashbacks (people who’ve gone will understand).

One of my first challenges my therapist gave me was so hard, I will never forget it. Even though we didn’t always get along, I felt a heavy absence when my sister left for college. The house was quieter and darker; despite our fights and my stealing her clothes, I missed her terribly and I couldn’t hold that in. My therapist told me to tell my sister that I missed her when she was home on break. It was the best and worst thing I had to do. We were never close. We never said nice things to each other. I went over it again and again in my room while Daisy was downstairs watching TV. I could just not do it, I told myself. Not face a challenge, not express my feelings like I’ve always done. But I went downstairs, told her I was going to therapy and, under a sheet of tears, told her I missed her, one of the first kind things I ever said in years to her. She was probably thrown off by my expression, but years later we bond over our problems and anxieties.

I began to improve from there. Exposure therapy was working well.

My therapist challenged me to ask people to hang out more on the weekends which I did, which lead to me gaining some best friends. She told me to talk to my mom more about the things she did that made me feel bad. She helped me realize I resented my parents for not realizing my pain early enough and that I had to let that go because it was up to me to talk to people. I learned to talk to my mom about everything, updating her on what I went through in therapy. I left therapy with a bunch of breakthroughs; I walked out the door and got in my car, sat there in silence by myself, just feeling everything. I cried and smiled; I had tears of sadness and joy; sadness for the experience and joy for getting through it.

I was doing pretty well over the next few years, despite some ups and downs. I graduated high school, a ceremony at Arch Street Quaker Meeting House in downtown Philly. The ceremony consisted of standing in front of a crowd and sitting at the facing benches (my worst enemy, everyone looking at you) during a stifling meeting for worship. I feared the heat as I associated it with the burning cheeks and racing heart of a panic attack. But I did it. I got through the ceremony with only an ounce of anxiety and said goodbye to high school with New York City at the end of my summer.

I left my therapist at the end of an emotional session. She knew my distain for goodbyes as first seen with my sister, and she left me time to cry over leaving her and to tell her how much she had helped me. She recognized the great changes I went through. She gave me a laminated print of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” to take with me to New York.

I managed to live in New York for four months, all the time without therapy. I went through some personal conflicts that could have been smoothed out by talking to someone. But my busy schedule at art school and the difficulty finding the counseling center kept me from going. I transferred at the end of the semester, giving me the chance to go back to my first therapist again. I spent three semesters traveling from Temple U to her, eventually feeling ready to stop therapy after combing through some more issues. The travel time, the cost, and the happiness I was experiencing amongst new friends and adventures was enough to stop me from going. I realize that as a mistake now. I lost sight of myself and it had consequences. As I always say now, therapy should be for sad and happy people because it’s important to know what makes us happy.

I had to go back to my therapist after experiencing a horrific prescription-induced panic attack that left me scarred and shaking for a whole year. I have a residual depression that will always be with me, the muscle memory of my brain to feel and enjoy being sad. I wasn’t accepting of that feeling. I wasn’t in therapy, so I took what I thought to be the short-cut to happiness by taking someones prescription happy pills. It gave me the worst panic attack ever. I never experienced anything like it; the burning was hotter than ever, it was in my brain and lungs. I leaned over the toilet feeling nauseous, telling my boyfriend I had to go to the hospital. I imagined myself on a gurney, being wheeled under the white lights, feeling nothing but total horror. I didn’t have an end in sight. No matter how many times I write about it, no words can ever describe just how horrific it was. And even more horrific, the drugs kicked in after and I felt chemically happy, too happy. It was an odd sensation, like missing the exit off the highway and knowing you’re headed the wrong direction for twenty more miles. My boyfriend left for work and I sat there alone, knowing in my elated state that it wasn’t real and that the dark was coming back to haunt me very soon.

I strained to have breakthroughs in therapy like I had before but everything was different now. I wanted the pain of the fear, the anxiety, the sleepless nights, the jolts and waves of horror, the shaking and numbness to go away in my short forty-five minute sessions. But I had to say goodbye to her when her maternity leave began, before I was feeling okay. I left without a real breakthrough, both of us knowing that I most likely couldn’t have one. What was hurting me most was unnatural and I did it to myself. I left knowing, painfully, that time was my only friend.

A therapy pro

I found a new therapist junior year of college. I went in with confidence, explaining my whole life story to her. I was impressed with how much I knew about myself, my fears, my remedies (taking a walk to a corner store to buy gatorade and drinking it between deep breaths). I even spoke with confidence about something I had never shared to my previous therapist.

Through the years I negated to tell my therapist something very important about my depression. I felt that if I did, I would have betrayed her, our trust and our openness. I looked at my first therapist almost like a parental figure and I was afraid to disappoint her. I never told her I cut myself.  I imagined she would feel hurt that I didn’t share it sooner. I also simply didn’t feel ready to tell her that, to tell anyone that. No one else talked about things like this.

I told a group of high school friends once, under a buzz of cheap liquor, and I showed them my scars. No one really did anything about it. Only one told me they had seen them before and tried talking to a teacher about it. But nothing happened, no outside factor stopped me. I had to stop myself.

My second therapist asked me very casually, “Are you thinking of doing it again?” I said, also casually, “Nah.” The first time I stopped happened as easily as it started. I didn’t want any more scars on me when I played softball in eleventh grade. It sounds kind of silly hearing how undramatic it was. I couldn’t wear anything to cover the scars up, so I just stopped for the time being. I was in a better place at this point. I had been going to therapy for a year and was better managing my issues, including my amorphous eating disorder which I also never mentioned to her before either. I wanted my strength when I joined varsity. I couldn’t let things get in the way. I consider softball my little savior (until my stage anxiety made me really bad at it). I did relapse a few times, especially in New York. But I managed to get through it all by myself for a while.

(To anyone reading this who may be struggling with this issue or know someone who is, even though I stopped myself, it wasn’t easy. Please seek guidance if you can. Ask for help. I know it’s hard. So fucking hard. But it’s worth it to stop and start living a normal life).

softball.jpgIt’s probably easy to guess that it’s a very vulnerable thing to talk about, and I feel scared to mention it right now. But in talking with friends I realize it’s not something to be pushed down. I can’t hide my scars anymore. Why should I not talk about it? I’m not ashamed. I wouldn’t say I ever put myself in danger. I was always safe, as safe as I could be (probably got a few eye rolls from you just now). I just needed something to put my intangible feelings into something real. But I stopped forever. It started as something small, grew to something bigger and diminished over time.

I caught up on my issues with my new therapist quickly. I didn’t hide anything, aside from the sex stuff, I don’t like talking about the sex stuff. Needless to say, I’m back on track. It’s still a bumpy track but at least I’m on it.

Final thoughts

There was something my high school principal said in assembly that reached out to me in the middle of my mental journey. He told us about difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a temporary feeling, a good feeling from a moment or a possession. Joy is a longer-lasting, more potent emotion; it is the general feeling of a good life, no matter the ups and especially the downs. In his closing words, he hoped for us to all find joy. Since then I took it upon myself to find joy out of all my sadness. It was corny, but it resonated with something I learned in therapy:

*Cue cheesy music*

As there is a difference between happiness and joy, there is a difference between sadness and depression. I ask myself at every session now, am I sad or am I depressed? Did this cause me to spin out of control or is this temporary? Can I get out of bed in the morning? Can I get through this on my own? Nowadays, I’m usually just sad. I used to take that sadness and hold onto it, even cherish it. I liked feeling sad because it gave me something to identify myself with. I sort of manic-pixie-dream-girled myself. I felt special being the depressed girl. I held onto it and it blew up in my face. Now I let it go. I have to. I’ll have a panic attack otherwise.

It isn’t to say that I don’t get depressed anymore. Obviously, this past month has been pretty rough on me, but I got through it. The thing is, with enough therapy sessions, you learn how to be your own therapist. I therapied the shit out of myself this month. I went for walks, I journaled, I painted. I got myself out of the funk by soaking up some Vitamin D and getting creative.

I didn’t know I was so scared to publish something like this until I thought of my family, my friends, even distant acquaintances possibly reading this. Hello to all you people. You probably know me as that chill girl that was pretty quiet at the lunch table most days, that girl who wore baggy shirts all the time, your friend who loves to listen to your stories but never often shared my own. Well now you know why I was so quiet and reserved. Now I hope you know why I never owed you an explanation.

I know that my story isn’t as dramatic as others. I wasn’t going through some terrible hardship, I didn’t experience trauma, I wasn’t bullied. I was just so so so sad. Anxiety and depression aren’t limited to just that. It happens to many people. I write this story because it happens to so many people. I was an impressionable, fragile thirteen year old when it all started. I could have avoided all of this if it was acceptable to talk about our sadness in our society. Middle school and high school are fucking hard, why don’t we have the proper resources to accommodate our mental well-being? Why didn’t I have a better guidance counselor? Why didn’t I feel I could talk to my friends and family? Why didn’t they really help me when they saw past my “resting sad face” and to my scars? I’m not angry at anyone, I’ve accepted certain things I didn’t get. I just don’t want this for anyone else. Things need to change.

I was inspired to write about my journey with depression and anxiety after discussions with friends who seek therapy. I’ve found myself a good resource for all things in the area, whether that be how to start, what questions to ask, or whether to sit down or lie down on the couch?? (I’ve always sat because my vocal chords strain enough as it is trying to talk and cry at the same time). I actually LOVE talking about my issues now. Similar to my fears, it’s a learned thing to be confident. That being said, if anyone has questions, please reach out. I’ll be happy to answer any questions. You can reach me at:

umyikesph@gmail.com

 

Thank you for reading ❤