My Battle with Anxiety and Depression; Turning Terror into Strength
When I posted a 6 minute video outing myself as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I had recently submitted a small article citing my experience alongside some scientific research regarding diet and depression, and I wanted to speak out about who I was before people saw the article. I figured my parents would probably tell me they were proud of me, and my boyfriend would call to make sure I was okay, and maybe a few of my friends would hit the Like button.
But it didn’t happen like that.
Within a few minutes of posting, my phone notifications went nuts. Dozens of people were commenting their support on it, hundreds were liking it, and thousands were viewing it. People I hadn’t spoken to since childhood were reaching out and telling me they still thought of me. Friends and family members were emailing me, telling me they had shown the video to their child who was suffering from the same struggles as I was. I couldn’t answer the texts and calls fast enough from the people who wanted to thank me or offer their support. I had never received such a huge response from anything else I’d ever created or posted. I was floored.
The feeling of having made myself totally vulnerable for literally the entire internet to see, and then having people respond positively to it, was incredible.
This wasn’t about me. This wasn’t about my struggle. There is nothing particularly special or unique about my experience with anxiety and depression. That’s not what touched a nerve in all these people. What they connected with was that so many of them struggled with something similar, and had also felt too ashamed to bring it up. So many people told me they admired my bravery and courage for speaking out about something that is encouraged to be hidden and tucked away, only whispered about behind closed doors.
And a lot of them were clamoring for the article I had mentioned was coming out.
Shit, I thought.
The article I had written was a 700 word piece that I had been invited to write a few months earlier. Because of the word limit requested by the publisher, I had only included a small piece of information about my own experience, in order to provide helpful information that I found during my research. ‘That won’t do’, I thought to myself. Because now people wanted way more information about my experience than was written in that blog, and I realized I was obligated to deliver that. I didn’t feel the need to write more about my experience for myself, or because people were now expecting to see an article. It was because the people who had requested needed to see more information. They needed to hear more about my truth, so that they knew they were not alone in theirs.
So if you’d like, you can read a little more about my story. It’s sad and scary sometimes, but most of all, it’s human.
Depression and anxiety are often both present in varying degrees in those that are afflicted by them, but they feel vastly different to me.
Anxiety always feels like I have a wild animal stuck inside my skull. When it becomes restless, it scratches its claws alongside the inside of my head, over and over and over. On the worst days, it throws itself against the insides of the flesh prison that encases it, flailing with talons drawn inside me until I scream. There have been days that I have calmly gotten inside my car, driven around the block, and screamed at the top of my lungs so that nobody would hear me. Sometimes my throat is raw afterwards from trying to let out the hideous beast that scrapes at my brain.
Depression on the other hand, feels as if you have been tied to a bag of stones and pushed into the ocean to drown. But you don’t care. You don’t care if you live or you die or if you get free of those stones or not, so long as everyone just leaves you alone and you can lay in peace and do nothing while the darkness folds over you.
I started to suffer from depression and anxiety in high school. Mental illness runs in my family, but I always considered myself to be a happy and positive person, so when I ran head on into a depressive episode my freshman year, I didn’t know what had hit me. I had begun high school pretty confidently. I felt good about myself, my grades were excellent, and I walked through the halls saying hello to everyone I recognized.
About halfway through the year, I auditioned for a role in a local show that I wanted badly. To be honest, I was feeling like I had a pretty good handle on being a teenager.
That all changed one night.
I screwed up at my audition callback. I got up to sing for the role, the director looking at me like this was all just a formality, of course the role was mine, but go ahead humor her and the ensemble. As I started to sing, fighting my way through the title song, I suddenly recognized the disappointment on all the faces around me. The director couldn’t look at me any longer. My friends found shoelaces that needed to be retied, fingernails to inspect. By the end of the song, I knew that part would never be mine. My mom drove me home in silence as I beat myself up over how it could have gone differently.
I didn’t know what to call it then, but this spun me into my first memorable depression. It was like a switch had been suddenly turned on, and it would take me the rest of my life to learn how to shut it off. At school that week, I was so sad I couldn’t muster the energy to speak to anyone. In the real world, this is forgivable. In high school, it was a death sentence. I was now treated as the moody girl, and I did a wonderful job of acting the part. Something in me broke that week, and I spent the next 3 years of high school lashing out at others when they pissed me off, and refusing to speak to people when I was upset or feeling down. I did it to myself, and was too young to know how to self-correct the course I was setting.
In college, things started off roughly the same as they had in high school. I felt freed of my past personae, and had resolved to be the positive friendly person I knew I had the potential for. I was determined to be the most likeable person on my dorm floor, and immediately tried to meet everyone.
The situation I’m about to discuss still breaks my heart with guilt, and deserves much more justice to be given to it then the few words I’ll describe here. To simplify this story, I had been flirting with a boy, who I knew liked me very much, and whose company I relished because of the attention and love I desperately needed. The last day of finals week of our first quarter, he tried to kill himself after I finally admitted that I wasn’t interested in dating him. Thankfully, he was prevented from throwing himself off the roof of our dorm building, but he never spoke to me again. I spent the Christmas holidays sobbing, blocking the harassing slew of AIM messages that popped up on my computer. Word snuck around on campus that I was the girl who toyed with him. I was sent to campus counseling upon my return, but haughtily refused to answer the kind therapist’s questions about my feelings. I may have told him to go fuck himself at one point. My parents asked me if I was depressed. I adamantly denied it. I didn’t even know what depression was. I was fine, I told everyone. Stop asking about it.
College from that point on was colored by promiscuity and binge drinking and idiocy, no different from most people’s college years, excepting the frequent and dramatic depressive episodes that would reduce me to hysterical phone calls to my parents and anxious and ugly fights with all my roommates. Then that behavior continued on after college into my mid-twenties. Even when I thought I was happy, most of my actions were driven from my anxiety. When I wasn’t happy, I would hole up in my apartment and go through bottle after bottle of wine, and wonder what had happened to me.
As I’ve gotten older, things both got better and remained the same. My anxiety worsened with every year, to the point where it was too stressful to even greet my coworkers in the morning or take public transportation. I worried about everything, obsessed about my dozens of lists telling me all the things I had to do, and constantly worried I was a loser. My depression was less obvious, but only because I had learned to hide it better. I knew after years of experience that people didn’t like it when I wasn’t a constant cheerleader, so I put more pressure on myself to be pretend to be happier and always act like things were fine.
I was obsessed with being perfect, even though everything I did felt like a mistake. I constantly worried about what people thought of me, how much money I had, what the scale said, who would I talk to at parties, was I any good at my job. The more I tried to do, the less I seemed to get done. My shoulders would ache at the end of the day from stress.
After a decade and a half of living my life thinking these were emotions everyone had, I began to see a therapist for what originally was “just insomnia”. A year after that, I realized that I needed serious help. I was suffering from another depressive episode, forcing an entire bag of cookies into my mouth that I didn’t even want to eat, in between slurps of cheap wine so I could get drunk as fast as possible when it struck me that I wasn’t very happy. And that maybe I didn’t have to live this way. And that if one more person told me to “stay positive” or “be grateful” that I was going to lose my shit.
So I made an appointment with my doctor. And then I made an appointment with a psychologist. And I sat on my therapist’s couch through many tear filled sessions, and talked about what a loser I was. Please imagine for a moment, that you have built your entire business based on the image that you are a positive and healthy person that can help others achieve positivity and health, and what a fraud you might feel like for having to admit finally that you are a depressed and extremely anxious personal trainer who eats bags of cookies and chugs cheap wine to feel better, and at the same time worse, about herself. I was terrified. I was terrified that everyone would find out what a phony I was and that I would lose all my friends and all my business and all my credibility. I was terrified that I had inherited the mental illness that ran in my family. I was terrified of all the opportunities and friendships and moments I had lost in my life because I had let these things get bigger than the rest of me, and I didn’t know how I would ever come to terms with the alienation that I had dug myself into.
But something unexpected happened instead.
My doctor put me on an anti-anxiety medication. Now, let me say that drugs are not for everyone, and there are many ways of handling mental illness that work better for so many individuals in this world. But for me, getting on medication felt like finally being freed from a cage. I told my therapist that I felt like my life had been stuck under an avalanche. They say people die in avalanches not from the initial impact, but because they don’t know which way is up and which way is down and what direction to dig in and so they die eventually. That’s what it felt like. It felt like I finally knew what direction I was supposed to be crawling towards to reach the light.
At first I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was so embarrassed that I had this diagnosis, but also that I was on drugs for it. I still thought everyone in my life would leave me and prove my theory that I sucked totally and completely at life. And then, I started slowly opening up about what I was going through. It started to feel good to have a name for the things that had tried to take over my life for so long. The more I named what I had, the less power they seemed to hold over me. I started sharing more and more, telling friends and family what I was dealing with, why some things were harder for me than others, and why I sometimes didn’t feel like my best self. The more I shared, the more others opened up too. I learned that so many of those who were close to me fought their own daily battles. And I didn’t lose people in my life, just the opposite. I became closer to those I cared about and recognized wonderful qualities in new friends. I started to wonder one day if all my friends were actually beautiful, or if I just thought they were because I saw what their hearts looked like. It didn’t matter.
I met a man who was patient and adoring and had the most beautiful heart of anyone I’ve ever met. We sat in his car one night under Coit tower and talked for hours about things that were hard for us, and I told him about the ugly beasts that I carried around with me and he didn’t cringe away or look at me with disgust. He helped me slowly realize that having imperfections didn’t make me unlovable.
So after many years of struggling behind me, and many years more ahead of me, I decided to share my story. It was something a mentor encouraged me to do, and as usual, I’m thankful that there are people smarter than me out there in the world to push me outside my comfort zone. I still fail constantly, all the time, every day, but now it’s easier to pick myself back up. I have named my struggle, and it has therefore lost most of its power.
On days that I start to feel something stir in my head or weigh me down, I recognize the feeling. I can warn those around me of what I’m experiencing, and more often than not, this enables me to correctly identify what it is about a situation that set me off in the first place. Sometimes just pinpointing the trigger cause of my discomfort is enough to soothe the situation. My relationships now are the best I have ever had.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for listening. Thank you for helping me be more of who I really am by letting me share this part of myself with you. Self-awareness is difficult, but perhaps if more of us spoke up about our truths, we could create pockets of kindness and acceptance for the ones we share this journey with. You’re never wrong to be yourself.