It’s a shame that there is still such a stigma around mental health these days. For me, maintaining my mental health is just as important as my physical health, and in an ideal world, that's how I'd hope everyone could think about it.
My journey with depression and anxiety started when I was in fourth grade. I remember getting panic attacks at night and not being able to sleep. They weren’t about anything in particular, but I would work myself up so thoroughly that it seemed like I would never be able to calm myself down. I went to go see a psychologist on a weekly basis to talk through what was happening, and learn some basic techniques (breathing exercises, muscle relaxing practices, etc.) for coping with high anxiety. Still to this day I use some of those techniques when I need a little extra help staying calm, and yet I remember so clearly how embarrassed I felt to have to seek help. I don’t think I told anyone outside of my immediate family about it for at least a decade.
Depression runs very strongly on my mom’s side of the family. My mom, my mom’s sister, my mom’s aunt, my mom’s mom, my mom’s grandmother and great grandmother were all affected by it at one time or another, so it was probably inevitable that it would hit me at some point too. To be honest, I couldn’t wrap my head around the illness for a long time. When my brother was affected by it, I just couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just shake it off, choose joy, choose to get out of bed and do things, and generally just move on.
Then in the summer of 2014, I got really sick and it required me to be hospitalized for ten days. After constantly running tests, switching hospitals, getting my lungs drained from the fluid that had filled them, and having a fever of 104 degrees, they figured out it was two different strains of mononucleosis affecting me at the same time. None of the doctors had seen it before.
The illness forced me to take a time out in life. I couldn’t be in my childhood best friend’s wedding. I had to stall my dream internship in Los Angeles by a month. I had to move home to Michigan for a while so I could fully regain my health.
After I had recovered, I moved out to L.A. to start my internship. The second day I was there, my boyfriend (who I was head over heels for) broke up with me out of the blue. I was devastated, living in a new city, and it felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about what I was going through. When I moved back to Nashville in the fall to finish my last semester of college, my hair started falling out by the handful due to complications from my illness. To top it all off, I was supposed to live with my best friend, but she had to move to Seattle for work at the last minute. I ended up living with a friend of a friend of a friend who I didn’t meet until the day I moved in.
Suddenly, I couldn’t get out of bed. My body ached all day long. I was always tired. I was always crying. Colors seemed to be less vibrant. I thought about death a lot. It felt like I was living next door to hell. It was literally all I could do to get out of bed, go to work or school, come home and crash into bed and cry.
Luckily, I realized pretty quickly that I needed help.
My parents each came down from Michigan to visit me at separate times and helped me generate a support structure of health care professionals who would help me get back on my feet. Mostly they just let me ruin all our plans by crying uncontrollably and telling me that it was all going to be ok. I’m lucky to have such supportive parents.
After a grueling winter of intensive, sometimes twice weekly therapy and psychiatry appointments, I finally got the ok from my therapist that I was officially no longer clinically depressed! It felt like I had just climbed Mount Everest. Words could not express how happy I was. When I called my mom to tell her the good news, I got so choked up and speechless that she actually had to ask, “are you still there?”
The year that followed was a wonderful and painful learning process, but towards the end of it, I really started feeling the weight of depression again, and it all exploded once I had another devastating break up the following January.
My depression and anxiety came back in full force. My anxiety made it impossible for me to sleep because my panic attacks would pull me into toxic circular thinking patterns that would actually make me dizzy. I think I cried myself to sleep for at least a month and a half afterwards. I lost a lot of weight and went down three pant sizes because I couldn’t eat. My anxiety would twist my stomach into sickening knots and my depression made me lose all interest in food.
You’d think that all these things would push me to seek help again. I already had a support system set up, why wouldn’t I just utilize it?
Because I was ashamed.
I was ashamed that I had done all that work a year earlier and yet my depression still came back. Had I wasted my time? Was I always going to feel like this? How could I admit to my friends, my family, and even to myself that I had let depression and anxiety back into my life?
But one night when I was sobbing on the phone to my mom (again), she said something that drastically changed my outlook on mental illness.
She proposed the idea that I would go back on medication, and I was adamantly against it. Even though I had already started back in therapy, I felt like taking medication would be fully admitting my defeat; that depression had won and I needed to be medicated. To which she replied,
“Your brain may need a little extra help to get you back on track. Think of it as a form of allergy medication: during the summer you take antihistamines to manage your allergies, but you don’t take them all year. Anti-depressants can be used in the same way. You may need to take them for a season, but you won’t always need them. In a way, your brain chemistry is ‘allergic’ to this life event. You aren't ashamed to take antihistamines for your allergies are you? In the same way, there's no reason to be ashamed for taking antidepressants for this season.”
Wow. Mind blown, am I right?
Such a simple concept, but such a profound impact.
Suddenly, I was free to look at my battle with depression the same why I look at my battle with pollen in the summertime. It was just a season.
So I went back into intensive therapy, until I slowly could stand on my own again, and I got adjusted to a medication that was right for my brain chemistry.
These days, I don’t think of my mental health as a battle to be won. I just gently and patiently listen to what my body and brain need. I choose to take care of myself first without thinking that’s selfish. I can’t love other people very well if I don’t love myself first.
Featured photo for this post by Mackenzie Maroney