One year ago today I went to my first therapy session. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy or powerful, it wasn’t at all comfortable or transparent. It was full of fear and anxiety and sweaty pits and clammy palms. It was fraught with fake, half-smiles because I was terrified that the therapist was going to think I was crazy. It was full of strange statements and incoherent ramblings because I was trying to be honest but did not know how to approach opening myself up to a stranger.
A year ago I stepped into a Counseling Center and approached my appointment with skepticism, a gross amount of sweaty armpits, a pounding heart, and an ungodly amount of shame.
I’ve thought a lot about what I would say if ever I were to write about this in a more public forum. It took years for me to acknowledge the reality of my situation, many months more to tell my family, my friends, the people in my life I cared most about, that my mental health wasn’t too great.
It had become such a detriment that I felt like I burned a lot of bridges, had become a poster example of “the terrible student.” My potential was being wasted, my irresponsibility getting the better of me, my reputation as a careless student and an inattentive, unresponsive, perpetually-tardy or absent friend becoming the defining feature of my character. It was something that primarily manifested itself and grew since I’ve been in college. And, for a long time, my sole response was “I never thought this would happen to me. Me??” Disbelief, denial–they both led to nothing but detrimental outcomes.
A year ago tomorrow, I sat down at a table in the library, in front of my friend, and sweated through my thickest sweater as a I panicked about figuring out how to tell my parents I was dealing with anxiety and depression. I was utterly scared to death, a deep-seated terror in my chest as my mind transfixed on what I would write, how I would possibly tell the two people in the whole world who loved me most that I was broken. That I was incapable. What could I write to cover the fact that my mental health had become an extreme detriment to my schoolwork, my friendships, my relationships, my job, and my well-being?
I ended up writing a 6-page, almost 4,000 word email to them. I rambled on for 6 whole pages, trying to defend or explain to the best of my ability and with the little knowledge of mental health issues that I had at the time what I thought was wrong with me. And then I ran outside and flipped out for a good bit of time about the fact that I had written a six page paper to my parents and sweated through a huge sweater in my anxiety-addled state. My friend, to her utmost credit, was on-hand for support.
Now that I’ve had a year to reflect, I am filled with worry about that experience. Why was I so utterly terrified to tell my beloved parents, the ones who raised me and loved me and sent me to college and gave everything, to tell my siblings–the three people in the whole wide world to whom I feel the most connected–that I wasn’t doing so well? Why was there such a fear? Why did I let the anxiety become such a detriment to my life that it took until the last, possible second to pick myself up from the never-ending, vast, engulfing hole in which I’d thrown myself?
There is something worrisome, extremely so, about the fact that I felt I could not tell those closest to me that I was suffering before it became too much.
“Anxiety is not logical,” is a phrase I have heard often in the past year. And it’s not. It really isn’t. And I do, absolutely, think the irrationality of it contributed to my overpowering fear to divulge, to be vulnerable, to be honest to myself and those around so that I could begin the “living with” process, start rebuilding and understanding and healing and dealing.
But I do think, too, that the stigma of it all shaped my actions in all this.
Even now, as I write this, I can’t get my anxiety–coupled with the stigma that is slapped onto mental health issues by society–to stop throwing words like “excuse” and “drama queen” and “looking for sympathy” at me.
My intent (if there is anything that can be taken from this account) by sharing this story is to provide an example of the ways stigma can effect our ability to get help.
I also write this to herald the simple ways in which talking about how I’m feeling–at the very least–aids in my improvement. Utter transparency and the God-given courage to be vulnerable and honest can be a combatant to the crushing power of anxiety and its tag-a-long pal, depression.
There are often days, even now (because, really, a year is not as long a time as it seems) when I feel as though nothing has gotten any better. Days where I feel like I’m back in that hole and all my efforts have been wasted. And then there are days, like today, where I can escape my mind and look beyond the present and reflect on things that have gotten better.
Because they have.
Number one: my parents know. My family knows. This was always the biggest fear that clenched my chest and made those moments of despair all the more unbearable. But being reminded of the support system that exists and has always existed–no matter the lies my anxiety told me about its nonexistence–from my parents provided so much. I had placed my parents’ and family’s image of me on such a high pedestal that I had forgotten their love and support trumped all. There was no such thing as non-support in their eyes. There was never any hesitation on their part to not reach out and offer their help. And that touches me more deeply than I can say.
Number two: perspective. Perspective–so many different perspectives–have been provided to me because of the courage I found in prayer and in Christ to speak my story and to be honest with people, with myself.
It’s been a long, long year. So many things have happened beyond just coming to terms with my mental illness. So many complete and utter, shit things. And certainly, it has been anything but easy. It’s been one of the most trying years of my entire life, incredibly exhausting. I feel stripped bare, exposed, like everyone in the world is finally seeing what I have tried the hardest to hide, to deny to myself. And that’s a devastating feeling. It leaves nothing but waves of inadequacy, irrational thoughts that grow to despair.
Denial is a tricky bastard. Sure, I could sit at my computer for hours and hours and empty my brain into someone else’s story–whether in a movie or a television show or a book or an article. I could focus on their problems and their worries and their fears and forget, for just a moment, my own. But then the sun would rise and I would still be awake and all the obligations, the homework I had not completed, the work I had to go to, the sleep I wouldn’t be getting for another 12 hours, would come crashing down and I couldn’t hold it up anymore. I had (and often still catch myself having) a constant need to project an image of “she has her shit together,” and that made me paranoid of what others thought. Paranoid that the projection would crack, even for a second, and the facade would be lifted, the truth thrown out into the world.
But what I’m realizing more and more–beyond the results of my anxiety leading me to those thoughts–is that the fears were also manifested from the stigma.
And that has got to change. I was (and often still am) afraid that “The truth”–my truth–will be “thrown out into the world.” What? Is the truth really that bad? Is it really so terrible, so incredibly terrible for the world to know that I have struggles? The answer to that, it seems, is yes. And it should be no. It should be, “No. No, Kelsey, everybody has their shit.” But there are times where I believe that the answer is yes, because there exists the belief that mental health sufferers create their own problems. The issues that I face, it seems, are something either easily fixable or made up because I’m being dramatic.
It’s not okay to group mental health problems in the hierarchy of “which sickness deserves real attention.” It is not okay to wave off my negative feelings as self-manifested, insignificant, unworthy of help. It is not okay to look at someone’s life and deem them careless, irresponsible, wasting their potential simply because what is shown is surface level. It is not okay to push further guilt on a brain that may be doing nothing else but reminding a person of all of their faults.
The screw-ups are not intentional, by any means. The real struggle is internalized, it’s hidden–and maybe that person does a damn good job of hiding it, too. But that does not mean it does not exist. If anything, I am made more and more aware of the absolute need to check up on those around me, see how they’re doing, ask if they want to talk, be a presence, an outlet for support.
That’s what I would want, even if I don’t express it or want to talk about in a specific moment. Even if I don’t know how to convey my feelings, share my scars. Empathy is everything. Empathy is everything.
Let’s help people understand that they are not crazy, or incapable, or making it all up, so that they don’t wait as long as I did to get the help they deserve. Let’s help #StopTheStigma.
So, in telling my experience, in sharing my story, in being vulnerable in the best way I know how to be–through words, in sentences, alongside paragraphs–I am holding my hand up with the masses of brave souls who have done so before me in contribution to my pushing back on that stigma. To saying no to the assumption that mental illness is self-manifested, illegitimate, dramatized, hyperbolized, not worthy of worry or concern or support or professional resources.
Everyone deserves the right to be happy, and everyone’s negative emotions are valid to them, in their moments, too.
I will say, on my end (because these experiences are all personal and entirely situational), the Lord has shown me immense patience, undeserved kindness, and extreme favor. He has placed support in my life and hope in my heart. And love on my lips even in the dark days.
It’s still a struggle. It’s still a daily exercise of “Will you?” or “Won’t you?” relating to going to bed, getting out of bed, doing my work in a timely manner, being healthy, exercising respect in my relationships, reaching out to others.
One of the greatest gifts, though–and I suppose, yes, even gifts have come out of this–is the humility and patience in others’ shortcomings that I have developed in seeing their own patience in my many, many shortcomings. We’ve all got to help each other out, right? There is no room, absolutely none, for judgement from any sides.
I’ve written about a hundred drafts of this piece–stressed over whether to put it out in the inter-webs or not, to be vulnerable worried about what people would think. But writing is what makes things better, for me at least. Writing gives me agency, gives me clarity, gives me time to step back and look at the words, mull them over, think them through before I spit them out.
In writing workshops, we’re told that the more truthful we are in our writing, the more appreciative the reader will be. We’re taught that the more we share, the more “real” we seem to the reader, thus the better chance we have at gauging their trust, being “relatable.”
But transparency, true, complete transparency, for some strange reason, is seen as somewhat taboo. It’s seen as classless, distasteful, unnecessary, unrestrained, adolescent, inappropriate. “TMI,” we say, to those who give us a glimpse of their innermost corners in their bravest moments. And yet the writings that most effect us are the ones that seem the most real. Everyone’s got their junk.
So, here’s to the ability to be vulnerable, to “over-share.” Here’s to the ability to be honest to myself and others. Here’s to the mantra that I repeat often, that it’s okay to not feel okay sometimes. Here’s to the complete obliteration of the belief that it’s NOT okay to not feel okay. Here’s to the annihilation of society’s incessant need to label ailments of the mind as unworthy of help. Here’s to future smiles and hopeful hearts. Here’s to sunshine (though, lo and behold, the sun set yesterday at 4:30 p.m.)
Here’s to you all, for being so kind and patient and generous. Here’s to you all for making it to the end of this lengthy post, all 2,304 words of it. (Especially after I lost the draft and had an epic meltdown with many tears and way too much swearing. But God is good and He reached down into the depths of cyberspace and found the draft for me.) And here’s to you all for being undeserved friends, family members, co-workers, mentors, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and support systems this past year, and hopefully for many more to come.
I’m inviting you to help me #StopTheStigma of mental illness. We can do it together.