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My Mental Illness Journey
I've thought about how to talk about this perhaps a hundred times, usually when I'm lying in bed at night. Right now I'm 15 years old, I'll be turning 16 in September. In elementary school, I was a "normal" kid. I was often described as well-behaved, outgoing….and sensitive. In school assemblies, I often cried because it was too loud and there were too many people. I was too scared to say no to my friends and some of my "friends" were actually bullies. But it was never too much, or too obvious, so instead of going to a therapist, I was just called sensitive because that’s all it was back then. Just a sensitive and sweet child.
In sixth grade, a massive wave of depression hit me like a ton of bricks. I spent of recesses sitting under the playground in silence. People tried to talk to me, and I didn't budge. At this time in my life I began to spend more time on the internet, I discovered my sexuality, music I liked, and I also discovered what mental illness was. Before I was 12, I didn't know what mental illnesses really were, all I knew was what is portrayed in movies: crazy psychopaths who are usually the villains. But because of the internet, I had the tools to learn what mental illnesses were. Through this, I learned what depression meant and realized I probably had it. But believe me, it wasn't that easy to accept it. I was careful. I dug deep to really make sure these feelings were all real. During this self-investigation, I found out that I likely had anxiety as well.
With these new labels, it was starting to make sense. For instance, it was hard for me to start conversations, it was even hard to me to leave them! I once talked to a girl outside of school for an hour, when I came home my mom was freaking out because instead of taking two minutes to get home, I took an hour, all because I was too scared to leave the conversation. When I went to a small town fair with my friends, my anxiety was through the roof. People surrounded me as we tried to walk through the small crowd, I even begged my friends to walk me back home so I could get a sweater. I had to convince them to come with me because I didn't want to go alone, and it was 60 degrees… I wanted the sweater so my skin wouldn't touch anyone else's.
I was nervous even with my own friends, scared to overstay my welcome, constantly doubted if they even liked me. I ignored logic and sometimes convinced myself they hated me. Except for this time I had good friends, unlike some of the ones I had in elementary school. These friends did nothing to cause me harm, yet in my head, I worried if they wanted to.
It only got worse.
One of my friends at the time I started to grow close with, I found out she also had depression. We often conversed about our troubles and how insane we felt. I could see her going down a dark path, and maybe she saw the same in me, but we were both so mentally unhealthy that all we did is make it worse.
I had great times with those friends, but when the start of seventh grade began I convinced myself that everyone hated me and I should just abandon all of them. I tried to fight these strange insecurities but I never could win.
I moved to another school shortly after the start of seventh grade, and in this school, I felt the most isolated. I went to a Catholic school because none of the charter schools had any spaces left and the public schools around us weren't that good. I was open about my sexuality and how I was non-religious, and it's not like I was bullied, but I still felt so alone. Most people just didn't talk to me and maybe I heard a few comments that I found offensive but they were never directed at me. Most days I only ever talked to the teachers, unless someone else came up to me. I was too anxious to be outgoing. Eventually, I made some friends, but we never became that close to doing anything outside of school, I never even got their phone numbers. I was usually too bitter and anxious to deepen any friendship I had.
It only got worse.
After having several panic attacks during class and in school, I decided I needed to do something. And no, I didn't get help. Instead, I opted for burring my feelings deep down inside of me. I controlled my anxiety as much as I could, more than I could handle. The way I did this was by distracting myself so much that my mind couldn't even think about my anxiety, or at least that's what I hoped to do. I stressed myself out even more by piling loads of work on myself, blocking out friendships, and ignoring a lot of people. Most times it worked, I could get through the school day without having a panic attack, but I wasn't cured. Eventually, there comes a time in the day where you can't distract yourself: bedtime. So whenever I would lie in bed, all my anxiety I held back that day would flood through as if a dam broke.
This was the most miserable year of my life so far.
Almost every other day, at around eleven at night I would have a panic attack. My hands would shake and sweat. My stomach would tie itself in a knot and I'd be nauseous all night (this wasn't so bad because I was almost always nauseous). My chest would feel heavy like an anvil had fallen on me. It was hard to breathe, and it felt like something was stuck in my throat. Most times I would cry, holding a hand over my mouth because I shared a room with my step-brother. I would get hot flashes from time to time, so my body would be its normal temperature, but my hands would feel like they're on fire. My back and neck would ache and my muscles were tense. What I just described was only the physical effects. Meanwhile, my mind would be in chaos. All I would be able to think about was the pain and the fear. I would be stuck with this tunnel vision and think that this would last forever. A lot of times I would even feel like I was paralyzed. Thousands of thoughts would run through my mind, dangerous thoughts and fear, or sometimes I couldn't think of anything. This was a panic attack. I got my first one when I was 11 and in seventh grade when I forced myself to get them almost every night I was 13. I spent those nights in silent pain because I wanted to hide what I was feeling. Almost all of the seventh grade I was surviving on three to five hours of sleep a day, because these panic attacks could last up to two hours and it took me a long time to calm down. Most days the last thing I wanted to do was sleep. I was exhausted and anxious to put it lightly.
I started to obsess over my health. I wasn't mentally healthy, and I started to convince myself I wasn't physically healthy either. Perhaps I did this was because I was so afraid of death, that maybe I even thought I was dying in some way. I rarely skipped meals because I was too anxious or depressed to move, but I convinced myself I didn't drink enough water or eat enough, I was scared I was developing an eating disorder.
I wasn't. I was fine. But my mind wasn't.
Another thing I obsessed over was kindness. Because of my anxiety, I was constantly worried and scared of nothing, because of that I became more depressed, because I was depressed I was easily irritated, and because of that I was easily angered. But because of my anxiety, I was scared of people's opinions, scared of fights, arguing, and shouting.
So anytime I got angry I turned that anger around and onto myself, creating self-hatred. Anytime I yelled at my classmate or my brother, I ran and cried in my bed or in the shower. One time I ran into my mom's room (who was out at the time) and cried for three hours. I was so close to telling her everything. But my tears dried up.
So I didn't say anything.
I convinced myself that I was a monster. I was mean and cruel, and a horrible person. I didn't deserve to have friends if I was such a bad person. If I was so mean, then maybe I wasn't worth anything. I did this. It's my own fault I'm so mean, and depressed, and scared.
At least that's what I told myself. That's what I thought of myself when I was 13. This was because of multiple factors.
One, I rarely talked to anyone about what was going on.
Two, my mind was messed up.
Three, I didn't know enough.
What I mean by "I didn't know enough" is that I was uninformed. Yes, I knew what anxiety and depression were, I knew the symptoms too, but I still didn't know enough. I thought that my mental illness was my fault, that I had somehow caused it. I tried to think what of what I did to become like this. For months I obsessed over this, bullied myself over it. I felt as if I could never be the perfect daughter, sister, or friend because I made myself into this monster. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't my fault).
Eight grade comes around and I'm still alive, I had fewer panic attacks. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say I still had one every two weeks at least, and of course, I was almost always anxious to an extent. A month into my eighth grade year, I'm now 14.
One teacher said something to me. Only one. He wasn't a teacher in the school the year before, he was new. One day I happen to have a very big panic attack during class, everyone sees me freaking out. Sometimes it's small and I can hide it. But this time my legs were shaking some much I was bumping the desk and I couldn't stop crying. He walked up beside me and told me the class was ending soon, but told me I could stay. So while the rest of my grade got up and moved classrooms, I stayed in my seat with my head in my arms. The next class walks in, steals a glance at me, and then my teacher starts his lesson. Forty-five minutes go by and I managed to stop most of the shaking and my cheeks are stained with tears, but I'm calming down. He asks me what happened and I told him it was normal for me, and that I had anxiety issues. What happened next surprised me and helped me a few months later.
He told me that he recently went to a psychiatrist for his anxiety. He told me suffered his whole life up and kept silent about it up until now. He encouraged me to tell my mom and to get professional help. He didn't say much but it helped me in the future and I wish I could thank him sometime.
My mom tells me I'm going to another new school, one of the charter schools. Going to a new school was normal for me, in my middle school years I went to five schools (because we moved a lot), this was the fifth. I managed to survive the first week, but it wasn't easy. But soon enough I have a panic attack in the middle of science, everyone stares at me with sympathetic and curious eyes, one girl actually helps me calm down. Then I have another one in math, but I don't cry this time so no one notices. One after the other, I still have panic attacks during the again, because can no longer hold my anxiety back (but at least I can sleep a bit more). I have them during class, in halls, in the bathroom, and as I'm walking home from school.
But then, it gets a bit better.
After about two months in the charter school, I find a good group of friends. I started to hang out with these four guys, during and after school. We even have sleepovers at each other's houses. During these sleepovers is when we bond the most. I connect with two of the guys more than the others, because with those two I talk about my mental problems. One of them had a rough year in sixth grade and understood most of what I was feeling. The other had similar problems like me for years. Of course, his depression and anxiety were different from mine, but talking drastically helped me. We stayed up late and even walked around a park and just talked for hours, each sharing our experiences and worries. However, unlike from sixth grade, this was a healthy relationship. Although we were both messed up in the head, this time I knew how to keep a distance. My friend was a person I could go to talk to, and maybe ask for some help, but he wasn't a journal that I could spill out every signal secret to and expect him to always be there. He had his own problems and this time I understood that he couldn't save me, he could only share what he knows and cheer up from time to time.
I remember the first time this friend witnessed me having a panic attack (he wasn't in most my classes). I was in a rush to leave school because I knew I was about to have a panic attack and hoped I could hold it in until I got home. I walked past him and another friend of mine, and they continued to walk behind me. I concentrated on keeping everything in and every block I passed I expected myself to shut down any second. I started to tear up but managed to hold it in, this went on in a cycle for a while. Eventually, I crossed a street that I knew I would be crossing alone because my friends lived in another direction. Except one of them continued to follow me. He walked closer and closer until he was directly next to me. Eventually, he asked, "Are you alright?" I shook my head and broke down into tears. I thought I could hold the panic attack in when really I had been having one this whole time. He led me to a bench and stood beside me as I cried for fifteen minutes. He had asked if I wanted him to leave or stay, so he stayed. When I calmed down enough to talk I explained to him what was going on, he understood and we let out dry laughs. He didn't know what he was doing and if he was even helping me, but I reassured him that it was enough.
That's when I knew that having him there was enough. I didn't need to text my friend in the middle of the night or tell him every single thought, I just needed a presence there now and then. It was enough and what I needed.
December rolls by and my mom tells me she scheduled a doctor's appointment, a simple check-up. Then it hits me. This is my chance.
I should ask for help.
I always wanted help, I always wanted to heal, to fix myself, to get better but the problem I needed to fix is what held me back. I was too scared. I didn't know how to bring it up. But bringing up an illness while with a doctor is perfect, that's what I told myself. But then again…nothing can be easy, can it?
The following weeks I had a panic attack every day and maybe more. This is because I was doubting myself, wondering if I even needed a doctor. Was it so bad? Should I just do it by myself?
Then I worried about my mom. I knew she'd do everything in her power to help me. But would it hurt her? Would she worry too much? Would it bring her pain if she knew? Is ignorance really bliss?
Then at least I thought of myself. I doubted my own illness. Was any of this real? Was it all for attention? (Despite the fact that I had hidden it.) Was my pain over the last two years’ fake?
Should I tell her?
This was all I think about for two weeks. A friend I knew over the internet had been talking to me for a few months. I think I'll always remember what she told me, who knows…maybe it saved my life.
She said, "I know it's hard, but you need to use logic right now. If you're freaking out this much, then you obviously need help. You're in pain and need to reach out to others who can help you, if your doubting yourself THIS MUCH then it's real."
She made me realize that sometimes I need to step out of my own mind and look at my situation as if I was another person. I also remembered my teacher from the Catholic school, who told me to tell someone because he kept quiet until he was in his thirties. After that, I went to the appointment, I was anxious the whole time, waiting for the right time to say something. Then…
"I have mental issues."
I said, and of course, burst into tears.
Later my mom and I walked around a nearby park and talked some stuff out. I couldn’t say much because my anxiety formed a lump in my throat, and despite my nervousness I was happy.
My mom told me she also had issues with mainly depression some anxiety because they tend to go hand in hand. She had told me my dad (who I never met) was schizophrenic and bipolar, and all of her siblings had some mental illness as well. Without knowing it, she had cleared up a huge misconception that I had held in my mind for a long time. I learned that my mental illness wasn't my fault. It's just the way I was born, genetics and whatnot. I wasn't abused, nor had any traumatic experiences, so I struggled to find a reason to all of this, and my mom had given it to me in this moment. Little by little she had begun to share more of her life and mind to me but didn't tell me everything but that's not what I needed. I needed support and she gave it to me without overwhelming me.
I tried to share as much as I could, but like before my anxiety held me back. At school, I was still having panic attacks, and even some of my teachers had called my mom. I began to see the school counselor once every week, but I honestly hated it. To me, it wasn't real therapy, and it just made me more upset. Someone had even implied to my mom that they thought I was abused.
That triggered a conversation between my mom and me, filled with tears and hugging. It was still hard for me to share much, but I tried. It's just that every time I thought of telling her something, I wanted to cry. It's easy to talk to a complete stranger about this because I couldn't care less about them. But the closer the person is to you, the harder it becomes to say anything. I don't like my mom seeing me in pain and I know she feels the same when she talks about her issues.
But having her there. Having my mom just know and be aware of my issues made me breathe so much easier. I still tried to hide my feelings from her, still taking more showers just to cry or pretending to nap as I have a panic attack. After hiding it all for almost three years, it was hard to stop. So far my mom has only knowingly seen me have two panic attacks….out of the dozens I've had.
Having her know about it was enough for me. It eased my mind. Her knowing that the reason I don't want to go to amusement parks is that I'm anxious, not just being a party pooper. Or I'm miserable when we go to a pool is because I'm scared- not just being a brat. That is enough for me. Now it felt like my mom was so much more present in my life.
I know some people might want to blame her. For not noticing, for not reaching out. Yet most parents don't sit their kids down and ask if they're depressed or anxious. Most teachers didn't notice. Most classmates didn't notice. Not enough to say anything. I was hiding my illnesses for years, I got good at keeping everything bottled up, she was busy being an adult and a mother, so of course, she didn't notice. I don't blame her.
2016 was a terrible year. In my journal, I had written "2016 was a year of countless anxiety attacks, crying at night, losing sleep, losing friends, and being scared", but in the end, I finally told my mom about my struggles.
January rolls around, and I make my 2017 new year’s resolution: to be better to myself. To stop calling myself names, to stop bullying myself. I wanted to quit the mindset I had and to stop all the self-hating. It's not an easy thing to do, but what's funny is that when 2018 was nearby and I read this resolution…I didn't recognize it. I completely forgot about it, but I strangely accomplished it. With though knowing, I had stopped most of the self-hating I was doing. So much so that I forgot I even did it.
It still amazes me how I did it. I suppose knowing that my mental illnesses weren't my own fault made me realize that I didn't make myself a "mean monster". Plus, knowing my mother was in the same boat as I helped me realize I wasn't a monster because I didn't think of my mom as one. And I had an amazing group of friends to talk to and hang out with.
Every day of eighth grade was still spent with me thinking of my anxiety. I worried about where I was going to go to high school, which was normal in NYC since it's basically like applying for college. But I was more worried about which state I wanted to go to, not which school. I still had panic attacks a lot and usually for little to no reason. But on the bright side, I wanted to become more comfortable in my skin because it was so difficult to be comfortable with this mind of mine. Little by little I expressed what kind of clothes I wanted to wear, a little scared of what others would think. My mom allowed me to pick my own style, I just had a hard time accepting what I wanted to wear. I continued to talk to my friends about my issues and worked on researching coping methods and anything that could help me.
Finally, the end of eighth grade. Our school made the eighth-grade students create a presentation or project about high school. We had to talk about our expectations, dreams, or goals about it. Or we could talk about all our happy memories from middle school. When they told us about it, it just made me depressed and bummed out because all I could think of were the bad memories. I was too scared to think of the past and too scared of the future, all of it was too personal for me. So I just finished an art piece I had started at home and tried to fake it, saying it represents me.
But then…it did. It was a drawing of me and a tiger falling in opposite directions. I had said it represented my confidence. After that, I somehow found out how I wanted to change. Without going too much in depth in the presentation, I had said my goal for high school: I wanted to become more confident in ninth grade.
And I did. But oh my god it wasn't easy.
The first week of school consisted of awkward icebreakers in every class, and I forced myself to raise my hand for every single question. I forced myself to talk to everyone and to smile. I tried not to think too long before I acted because if I did I would've second-guessed myself and end up staying quiet in the corner. I forced myself to show my inner outgoingness.
When people asked me if I was nervous going to high school, I told them no, not any more nervous than I am on a daily basis. Because I've been the new student so many times, I always knew how it would feel and how it would go. I knew what it felt like to join a school in the middle of the year and be "the new kid" for months. I already experienced everything the other freshman felt. So for once, I wasn't nervous because I was the expert.
I know it's a bit evil, but I enjoyed seeing everyone else freaking out and in my head, I laughed to myself as they all ran around. After a few weeks everyone got used to the school and I was still my usual amount of anxious.
I continued my quest for confidence.
I forced myself to become outspoken and outgoing again, and continued to participate in every class. I acted like my inner silly self and made others laugh, while inside I felt like throwing up. But it worked. People said they liked my confidence, some thought I was suave. I always replied by telling them that I was secretly quite nervous, yet most people could never tell now.
I still struggle, but so far I've only had about five panic attacks during school (only one person had witnessed one) and its now April. I still get anxious. There are some days where all I feel is sad, bitter, and depressed. Or somewhere I have a major panic attack at home or breakdown at night. Those days remind me that I'm not "cured" and perhaps never will be. It's easy to get sucked into those feelings of despair and think they'll last forever, but then I remind myself of all the progress I made.
There's this one example I use quite a lot. I went to my friend's quinceanera this year and it was amazing. I went there by myself and didn't get overly anxious (compared to last year where I got really anxious when going to a new place- even when I had the directions, GPS, etc). I was slightly nervous about being late, but luckily the whole party was a bit behind. The whole duration of the party I was dancing in the center of the dance floor, having people tell me I was cool and I replied with "Thanks! I'm trying REALLY hard!"
I felt amazing about myself and for once in a long time I had fun at a big social event. Last year at school dances I would sit at a table for three hours. People who try to sit talk but would always leave to dance. They'd try to encourage me to join, but I could never bring myself to stand up, too stricken with anxiety. And afterward, I was depressed for weeks. And it’s not like you could've pushed me onto the dancefloor back then and I'd suddenly start busting out sick moves. No, if someone did that I would erupt into tears.
The reason I could feel like the star of a party this year and not before was because of all of my improvement. To become like I am now, took me almost four years. First, I needed to realize my issues, then learn what they were. Then I needed to experience them and know what my mental illnesses were like for me, everyone is different, this was an incredibly painful step. Then I needed to learn how to cope and figure out how I can pull myself out of this deep hole. I also needed to learn to love myself again and learn to be myself no matter how cliché it sounds. I said it over and over again, but I needed to become more confident and outgoing, just as I was in elementary and even more so. (But this is just what I needed to do. It may be different for others).
This year, 2018, I'm still learning, still experiencing, and improving. I'm a work in progress, but I'm not giving up.
I need to say one more thing.
All of this, I did it mostly on my own. I suffered through those sleepless nights by myself, went through dozens of panic attacks hugging myself. I had a few people by my side, I'm not saying I was alone, but I did this work by myself.
If I had told my mom that day in sixth grade when I realized something was wrong, I'm certain I would've gotten a therapist and the support of my mom as soon as possible and maybe I would've gotten better much quicker. I bet wouldn't have suffered to this extent, but I can’t change the past. Yes, I regret not saying anything. I feel ashamed of my reasons for keeping quiet, but I can't change the past. All I can do is persevere and continue to ask for help when needed.
When I say I've been battling this for four years (of course I've always had anxiety but not the extent that it needed professional help until sixth grade) I get two reactions. One person might say "wow that took so long! I can't believe you were like that for years!" Another person might say "wow how did you do that so quickly! I know other people who took 20 years to change!"
My response to that is everyone is different. It would've taken longer for me to start improving if I still refused help. It would've been quicker if I had said something from the start. And plus this kind of thing also depends on the person, their mind, personality, their situation, and overall lifestyle. Mental illness has many contributing factors. The fact that I'm LGBT, or that I'm white, or that I have moved a lot, or have one parent. All of this affects me and my journey.
I wrote this to inspire and help others as well as myself. I will continue to live because I am tired of simply surviving. There are days where all I can think is that giving up would be SO EASY, but I remember all that I did to get here, and I can’t just throw all that away.
So when I turn 16, I can look back and give myself a round of applause and a huge pat on the back, maybe even a hug, because I deserve it. I'm finally proud of myself, but I still have a long way to go. Wish me, and wish yourself success!