By Emily Smith
Assistant Opinion Editor
Last week, Branwyn Wilson wrote a wonderful article calling for better education surrounding mental health, and I could not agree more with her. She makes some great points, saying that although mental health is talked about more, it has certainly not lost the stigma surrounding it. When people talk about mental health, it’s shrouded in negativity and speech that makes those who are not neurotypical (those with mental health problems) feel like outsiders. Therefore, as Branwyn talked about, many people with mental health problems are reluctant to share their experiences. Because of this, authentic experiences from people who are not neurotypical are hard to come by in day-to-day life. This perpetuates the silence of other people who share the same experiences. The cycle continues, and everyone stays quiet.
I am ready to break that silence. I have been ashamed for years about the fact that I have depression and anxiety, but I am no longer allowing myself to feel the shame. When I was in high school, I would remind myself to stay busy so that I didn’t have time to be alone with my feelings, thus letting myself spiral into a worse place than I was. Being the introvert that I am, I exhausted myself by forcing myself to be with people and do things for a large portion of my life. However, I knew that being exhausted was better than being suicidal. Unfortunately, this trend has continued into college as well.
For the past couple of years, I have jampacked my life with activities, clubs, social gatherings, and intense relationships to avoid feeling like I wasn’t wanted or I wasn’t doing enough for myself or the school. I told myself that I loved and valued everything that I was doing to hide from the truth: I stayed busy so that I felt like I was some use to myself and to the world. Without my titles, friends, and organizations, I felt like I had no value. Everything I felt about myself, I received directly from outside sources; I felt as though I had no intrinsic value. My self-worth was directly dependant upon everything but myself, which is obviously problematic.
While I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone, I know that I am not the only one who has ever felt this way. However, because of the stigma surrounding mental health, I also understand that people don’t share their stories and struggles very often. If you are one of the unlucky people who are suffering, but haven’t shared your story in one way or another, I don’t want you to feel bad. Society has constructed the honest and open sharing of feelings to be less than what is needed; emotion is weakness, and weakness will get you nowhere in this world (especially since we live in a Western society). The fact that you haven’t shared is not a character flaw, but rather a product of the world you live in. Do not feel any guilt.
Being someone who suffers from both anxiety and depression, a lot of my life was a constant battle between being too tired to do anything, and needing to do everything all at once. For example, if I had an essay due that I was excited about writing, I would wait until the night before it’s due because I would be so anxious to start it since I needed it to be perfect. It seems silly and counterproductive, but that’s how my brain worked. In the same way, I loved my friends so much, and they are wonderful, but if I didn’t hear from them for a day, I automatically assumed that they hated me, thanks to the anxiety. However, because of the depression, I didn’t feel like I physically had enough energy or drive to text them and ask them if they were okay. Everything played in a constant loop of worrying and then feeling too drained to act on things that would relieve that worry.
This cycle is something that I used to be extremely ashamed of. I would hate myself for not being able to take care of myself in the ways that I needed to. These feelings, especially in high school, accumulated into self-harm and suicidal feelings. If reading this makes you uncomfortable, I am truly sorry, but I can assure you that I am uncomfortable, too. So much of me doesn’t want to share this private part of me with whomever happens to read this story, but I also know how imperative sharing stories is to breaking stigmas. And so, I forge on.
Because of the aforementioned unhealthy cycle, and the fact that I was getting all of my self worth from outside sources, my relationships suffered a great deal. In my romantic relationships, I would need constant affirmation about their love for me or I didn’t believe that it was real. I would ask either too much of them, or I would pull away altogether because I was afraid of burdening them with my problems. In my friendships, I would engage in such negative self-talk that I convinced myself that they didn’t like me anymore, thus cutting off all ties with them so that I didn’t get hurt. This strained my relationships so much that people genuinely found it hard to be with me (this I know for a fact – I’m not just making it up because I feel bad for myself). Being an empathetic person, I felt that my relationships were strained, and that made me feel worse about myself and my situation, creating more problems. It was rough times.
If you were wondering through this downer article, yes, I did eventually reach out and get help. At the beginning of last year (my sophomore year), when these problems came to a front, I decided to reach out to the Counseling Center. Although I want to be a mental health counselor later in my life, I personally had had only bad experiences with counselors in the past, making me very wary to go. However, I knew I needed it, so I swallowed my pride and made an appointment. Since then, I have been going weekly or bi-weekly continuously whenever the school is open, and it has helped in ways that I never knew it could. I thought that going to counseling was admitting weakness, but it turned out that the weakest thing that one can do is not admit that they need help. To anyone who is contemplating going to the Counseling Center, please consider going, even if it’s for a trial period. Talking to a professional about your problems doesn’t mean you’re really sick; it means you know how to help yourself, and that is the first step to growing as a person.
Although I was going to counseling regularly and making great progress, I was still feeling like something was missing. As a psychology major, and as someone who has many friends with depression and anxiety, I know firsthand the benefits that medication can have. However, I am an extremely stubborn person and would never let myself consider taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication. I told myself I was “stronger” than that. Of course, being “stronger” than mental illness isn’t necessarily a reality than can be achieved. Cognitions can be changed, behavior can be changed, but brain chemistry is not something that can be changed with some counseling and positive affirmations. And so, reluctantly, I decided to try anti-depressants to aid my progress with counseling.
Starting medication is scary, but I realized I was more scared to feel low forever, no matter how hard I worked. I am proud to say that I have taken anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication for close to four months, and I have never felt better or more like myself. On low doses of both, I finally have the energy and peace of mind to achieve the personal goals that I have been working towards in counseling for the past two years. My relationships are healthy, my thoughts are healthy, and I am healthy.
I am not writing this article to gain sympathy, but rather as a starting place for those who feel like they are not able to share their stories about mental illness. As someone who is queer, I understand that “coming out” is not just reserved for people in the LGBTQ+ community; you can come out as many, many things. My goal is for this to help with your “coming out” process, wherever you may be with it. If you’re scared to admit you might have depression, please know that you are not alone and you are not weak. If you’re worried about seeking help and you don’t know where to start, reach out to me and we can talk. If you feel hopeless, know that I am living proof that it gets better. I have depression and anxiety, and after a lot of work (that I will continue to do), I feel happier than I have ever felt. My story is valid and so is yours.
As my story concludes, and hopefully yours begins, I will leave you with the mantra I pass on to strangers and friends alike: be safe and love yourself.