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You know in the cartoons where the character has a mini “Angel” on one shoulder and a mini “Devil” on the other? Well picture that, expect one of them is named “Anxiety” and will not stop tapping his foot in your ear, and the other is named “Depression” and sighs despondently whenever you refuse to acknowledge him. Welcome to my head. All the time. Every day. Well…most days. Between therapy and developing a deeper understanding of mental illness I have made some improvements.
Cancel the pity party...
Now, I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me. I’m not writing this to gain your sympathy. I’m writing this because, after twenty years on this Earth, I am still surprised at how little people understand mental illness. It’s not necessarily your fault. Mental illness is just not talked about as much as it should be – or as honestly. When it is talked about, you hear about the “success” stories. How someone “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps”, never has another bad day for the rest of their life, and is now a millionaire driving a holographic Tesla. Or, to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s portrayed as “tragically beautiful”. You hear about their struggles after they’ve committed suicide. Everyone gushes about how loved the person was and how they never saw it coming. I’m not saying that those are not valid stories and shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s not what I’m saying at all. All I’m saying is that no one talks about the people who wake up every day wanting to die, yet it goes almost completely unnoticed by others. I’m talking about those people in the middle of that spectrum. The In-Betweeners. What about the rest of us?
There was not ONE class in school, not even an assembly, which taught me about the importance of mental health. Not one. And I don’t know about you, but I barely had a sex talk let alone a “Here’s-what-to-do-if-you-start-to-feel-like-you-want-to-die” talk. So if it wasn’t being talked about as kids, and we weren’t learning those skills, how are we expected to talk about it as adults? I want to start a dialogue with people. With anyone. I want to open up that door and show people that just because something is difficult to understand does not mean you need to sweep it under the rug. And since I’m the one bringing up this topic today, I’ll go first.
I'll simplify it for ya.
I always have anxiety, and I have spurts of depression. The simplest way I can break down what my mental health has looked like over the course of my existence is an abstract painting. The canvas would be my life and the colors would be my emotions. Picture some bright, overpowering color for anxiety like…orange. An ugly, distasteful orange. And for depression, pick something subdued and gloomy…let’s say a deep navy blue.
Now, a majority of the canvas is covered in that orange color (Note: Not the entire canvas. Again, just the majority). It’s overwhelming. It captures your attention. You want to break away but your eyes fixate on this obnoxious shade. And every so often, there’s a splatter of that navy blue. It breaks through the orange and temporarily gives your eyes relief. But then you become hypnotized by it. It seems bottomless. Endless. And then just when you think that the blue will hold your gaze forever…BAM! The orange comes by and wakes you up. The painting in its entirety is a lot to take in and people call you crazy for staring at it. But no matter how hard you try, you’re always drawn back to it. Now, this metaphor doesn’t describe my life all of the time, just most of the time. Just enough for it to affect my relationships with others – and myself.
There's a panic...but it's not at the disco.
Looking back on my childhood, I’ve realized that this orange color has painted a majority of my life. Odd things that I used to do as a kid, I’m recognizing now, were symptoms of a budding anxiety disorder. Some things were little and I barely noticed them. I would bite my nails, or pick at my skin. Or some nights I would have a hard time sleeping. But I would also have these moments of…panic. There’s no other way for me to say it. I could think myself into a panic attack. Like…ruminating about death and how one day I, and everyone I know and love, will all inevitably be completely lost in oblivion…at age 6. Or when I was told that the mushrooms that grew in our backyard were poisonous and I thought that merely touching them would kill me instantly. Or when I was in elementary school and my dad was late to pick me up and I thought they didn’t want me. I could go on and on with a multitude of examples of how my mind would start to spiral. But the key point is: none of these fears were rational for someone of my age. Or of any age for that matter! But once I saw the worst outcome, I honed in on it.
It’s funny; I asked my parents what my behavior was like as a child. They told me that I was well behaved and very quiet. I preferred to play by myself. I appeared calm and put together. And I call it funny because that’s not how it was in my head. I was constantly afraid of things going wrong. I was quiet because my racing thoughts moved faster than my mouth. And I was well behaved because I was terrified of what would happen if I broke the rules. But hey, I was a model student, so I guess that counts for something.
Cue the sad violins...
I don’t remember my depression kicking in until I was a sophomore in high school. I was 15, taking honors courses, singing in the school choir, playing soccer, and getting very little sleep. See, anxiety makes me feel like I have to constantly be doing things and “making progress”, so I would keep myself busy. It was a distraction. So when I started feeling what I now know as my depression, I thought I was just tired. I thought I just needed sleep. My parents said it was normal to be stressed and tired with the amount of activities I was doing. But after a while, I noticed I was always tired. Small tasks felt like enormous projects. Things that I used to adore, I became bored with. I still had my racing thoughts, but I was too out of it to make note of them. I started to sense myself slipping out of life. I stopped feeling emotions. Or rather…I forced myself to stop feeling emotions. I always felt things on the extreme side. So if I was sad, I was devastated. If I was mad, I was livid. Even if I was happy, I became ecstatic. It was exhausting. So subconsciously I shut myself down.
This feeling I’m describing – the “slipping out of life” – is called disassociation. It’s a coping mechanism that someone subconsciously uses to deal with unwanted emotions or traumatic events. You can see an extreme version of this in people who have multiple personality disorder. Usually, the person experienced a trauma and the other personalities come forward when those traumatic emotions are triggered. This allows the real person to disassociate from said trauma. So, on a much, much smaller scale that can happen to people who have depression. Don’t worry, if you’re truly just depressed, you’re not going to spontaneously start to create other personalities. That's not how this works. But disassociation can pull you out of life and sometimes it feels like it’s pulling you (“you” meaning your soul) out of your physical body. You don’t feel like a real person. And this dissociation lead me to a very weird relationship with my body and emotions. I developed an eating disorder (which I will detail in a different article...I'm working on it.) and indulged in self-destructive behaviors. Mainly: Cutting.
*Sad violins grow louder*
When I was 16 years old, I started cutting myself. It was never any place where someone might accidentally see them. I made sure of that. It started off with just using my nails to scratch myself. Then it evolved to pencils. (Then Anxiety told me that the lead was going to poison me…so I stopped that pretty quickly). After that I moved onto actual razors. First it was my shaving razor. Then I started unscrewing them from unused pencil sharpeners. It was like I was an addict itching for my next fix. Anything that I thought could work, I tried. Then one day at work, I saw a whole bunch of the classic single-edged razor blades. There were about 50 of them sitting in our desk drawer. I hemmed and hawed over if I should take some. Technically, I’d be stealing them because they had been bought specifically for the store and they were not mine to take. Spoiler alert: I stole a couple when no one was looking. Funny how Anxiety kept his mouth shut for this one. But that’s how much I became reliant on cutting. The urge overruled anything Anxiety had to say.
So in case you haven’t noticed, I do have a very addictive personality. Anything that triggers certain emotions or makes me feel “good” I can become obsessed with. It’s not a traditional addiction where you go through withdrawals or anything. You just become fixated and hyper-focused on one thing. And when you’re experiencing stress or unwanted emotions, all you can think about is getting your next “fix”.
“But Rowan,” you may ask, “you’re literally cutting your skin open! How on Earth is that addicting??”
Well, I’m glad you asked! Even now, I don’t know the exact reason and, to be honest, I think it was a combination of things. Part of me liked the feeling because it gave me something to focus on when I was spiraling. And another part of me liked it because it pulled me out of my dissociative state. So as Anxiety was banging pots and pans in my ears, cutting shut him out. And as Depression was pulling my soul out of my body, cutting brought me back to reality. Even if it was just for a little while, self-harm provided me with some relief. It put me in a trance. During some of my darkest weeks in my first major depressive episode, I was cutting almost every night.
I’ll be honest, suicide did cross my mind. I never made any attempts, but the thought was there. I even did some research on what kinds of medications I could most easily overdose on. (Thankfully the Internet doesn’t really have that information readily available. At least not from what I found.) Mostly my suicidal thoughts were “passive” versus “active”. It was more along the lines of, “What would happen if at the next red light I just…didn’t stop my car?” or “If I died in my sleep tonight it wouldn’t be such a bad thing”. I just wanted to stop existing.
**I am in NO WAY endorsing this kind of behavior. If you find that these sound familiar, please, please, please reach out to someone**
Don't worry...there IS a light at the end of this article.
After a about a year of on and off self-harm and suicidal thoughts, my boyfriend at the time saw my cuts. I don’t know how I managed to hide them from him for so long, but I did. After a very long and emotional talk, he convinced me to tell my parents. Once my parents knew it was a short leap to my first therapy session. I got extremely lucky and loved the very first therapist I saw. (Some people have to try out multiple therapists. So if you feel discouraged, keep looking!) She made me feel heard and like I wasn’t completely off my rocker.
And I am happy to announce that after 4 years of therapy I am 100% cured of all my problems and haven’t had a bad day since. Not only is my Tesla holographic, but it also glows in the dark. (I’m kidding guys, jeez. I had to insert SOMETHING to lighten the mood!) But in all seriousness, therapy has helped tremendously. It really just helps you reflect on behaviors and emotions in a safe environment. 10/10 would recommend. No, I don’t have a Tesla. And yes, sometimes I still do have really bad days. Nothing in life is constant, INCLUDING those bad days. You just gotta roll with the punches. To quote Hagrid from Harry Potter, “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” Thanks J.K. Rowling.
Now go out and TALK!
So there you have it, folks. A recap on my mental health adventures as a teenager and young adult. But like I said: no pity parties. I want to reach others and start conversations. Let’s stop feeling “sorry” and start speaking up. So this entire novel, just to say this: Talk about it. If you’re with someone who is safe, talk things out. I promise, you’ll feel so much better. Or better yet, start a dialogue with people! Ask questions, get to know them, share stories, exchange healing ideas. (All of this assuming that the person is open to it first!) But just start talking about these kinds of things. And above all, remember this:
Mental illness is not who you are. It is simply a part of you. You can still have dreams and passions and good days and laugh a lot. You are allowed to have a life.