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My Mental Illness Journey MAG
I’ve thought about how to talk about this perhaps 100 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 and outgoing … but I was very 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 or stand up against bullies. But my sensitivity never seemed 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 recesses sitting under the playground in silence. People tried to talk to me, and I didn’t budge. 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. 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 this new information, my life started to make sense. For instance, it was hard for me to start conversations; it was even harder for me to leave them! I once talked to a girl after 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 crowd. I 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 doubting if they even liked me. I ignored logic and sometimes convinced myself they hated me. These friends did nothing to cause me harm, yet in my head, I worried that they wanted to.
It only got worse.
I found out one of my friends at the time 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 was make it worse. When the start of seventh grade began, I convinced myself that everyone hated me and I should just abandon my friends. I tried to fight these strange insecurities, but I could never win.
I moved to another school shortly after and felt even more isolated. It was a Catholic school, and I was open about my sexuality and how I was non-religious. Luckily, I wasn’t bullied, but I still felt so alone. Most people didn’t talk to me and 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. I was too anxious to be outgoing.
It only got worse.
After having several panic attacks in school, I decided I needed to do something. And no, I didn’t get help. Instead, I opted for burying my feelings deep down inside of me. I tried to distract myself so I couldn’t even think about my anxiety. I piled loads of work on myself, blocked out the people around me. Most times it worked; I could get through the school day without having a panic attack. But eventually, there comes a time in the day where you can’t distract yourself anymore: bedtime. So whenever I would lie in bed, all the anxiety I held back that day would flood through as if a dam broke. Almost every night around 11 p.m., 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. My chest would feel heavy, as if 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 were on fire. My muscles ached from tension and my mind would be in chaos. These moments would feel like eternity – racing thoughts paralyzed me with fear, emptiness, sadness. These panic attacks began when I was 11. I spent those nights in silent pain because I wanted to hide what I was feeling. I was surviving on three to five hours of sleep a day, because the panic attacks could last up to two hours and it took me a long time to calm down. I was exhausted and anxious, to put it lightly.
Then, I started to obsess over my health. I wasn’t mentally healthy, and I started to convince myself that I wasn’t physically healthy either. I even thought I was dying in some way. I rarely skipped meals, but I convinced myself that I didn’t drink enough water or eat enough. I was scared I was developing an eating disorder. I wasn’t. My eating habits were fine. But my mind wasn’t.
Because I was constantly worried and scared, I became more depressed and irritable. But instead of turning it outward, I directed it at myself, creating a pattern of self-hatred. 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. 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 convinced myself that it was my own fault that I was so mean and depressed and scared. Obviously, I was uninformed. Yes, I knew what anxiety and depression were. I knew the symptoms too, but I still didn’t know enough to realize that it wasn’t my fault and I hadn’t caused it. So, for months, I 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: I was wrong).
Throughout my middle school years, only one teacher talked to me about my anxiety. Only one. He was new, and one day I had a massive panic attack during his class. Sometimes the attacks are small and I can hide what I’m going through. But this time my legs were shaking so much I was bumping the desk and I couldn’t stop crying. Everyone was watching. My teacher kneeled beside me and told me the class was ending soon, but that I could stay for next period too. I stayed in my seat for the next hour, while the teacher taught his next lesson. My cheeks were stained with tears, but I was calming down. After class, my teacher asked what happened. I told him I had anxiety issues and that this was normal for me. What happened next surprised and helped me.
He told me that he recently went to a psychiatrist for his anxiety. He said he had suffered his whole life and kept silent about it until recently. He encouraged me to tell my mom and to get professional help. He didn’t say much more, but it helped me so much.
Around this time, my mom told me we were moving and I would be going to yet another new school. I went to a total of five schools during my middle school years. Soon enough, I had a panic attack in the middle of science class. Everyone stared at me with sympathetic and curious eyes. One girl actually helped me calm down. I had another one in math, but managed to keep it hidden. One after the other, I continued to have panic attacks. I could no longer hold my anxiety back; I had them during class, in hallways, in the bathroom, and as I walked home from school.
But then, life got a bit better.
After about two months at my new school, I found a good group of friends. I started to hang out with four guys during and after school. We even had sleepovers at each other’s houses, where we bonded and even talked about mental health issues. One of them had a rough year in sixth grade and understood most of what I was feeling. The other had similar problems to mine for years. We shared our experiences and worries, and developed healthy relationships. My friends were people I could talk to, but they weren’t a journal that I could spill out every signal secret to. They had their own problems, and I couldn’t expect them to save me.
I remember the first time this friend witnessed me having a panic attack. 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. My friend caught up with me and asked, “Are you alright?” I shook my head and broke down into tears. He led me to a bench and sat beside me as I cried for 15 minutes. When I calmed down enough to talk, I explained what was going on. He understood and we let out dry laughs. Just his presence next to me was the greatest help and comfort.
In December, my mom told me she scheduled a doctor’s appointment, a simple check-up. Then it hit me. This was my chance to ask for help.
I had always wanted help but had been too scared to ask for it. I didn’t know how to bring it up. But talking about an illness with a doctor would be perfect. That’s what I told myself. During the weeks leading up to the appointment, I had a panic attack every day, but even then, I doubted whether I needed a doctor. Was it so bad? Shouldn’t I be able to handle this 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?
I doubted my own illness. Was any of this real? Was it all for attention? Was my pain over the last two years fake? Should I tell her? This was all I thought about for two weeks. I shared my worries with a friend, and I’ll always remember what she said. It may have even 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. And if you’re 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 who had told me to tell someone because he kept quiet until his thirties. I was anxious during my entire doctor’s appointment, 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 about everything. Despite my nervousness, I was relieved. My mom told me she had also struggled with depression and anxiety (they tend to go hand in hand). She also told me my dad (whom I never met) was schizophrenic and bipolar, and all of her siblings had some mental illness as well. Without knowing it, she cleared up a huge misconception: my mental illness wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t abused, nor had I suffered any traumatic experiences – it’s in my neurochemistry.
Having my mom be aware of my issues made me breathe so much easier. I still tried to hide my feelings from her sometimes – taking showers just to cry or pretending to nap when I had a panic attack. After hiding it all for almost three years, it was hard to stop. Still, having her support eased my mind. She understood that the reason I didn’t want to go to amusement parks was that they made me anxious; I wasn’t just being a party pooper. She knew that I would be miserable when we go to a pool because I was scared – not because I was just being a brat.
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. I was hiding my illnesses for years, and I got good at keeping everything bottled up.
When January rolled around, I made a New Year’s resolution: to be better to myself. To stop calling myself names, to stop bullying myself. I wanted to stop all the self-hating. I suppose knowing that my mental illnesses weren’t my fault made this process easier. Plus, I could stop looking at myself as a monster – my mother was in the same boat, but I considered her one of the greatest people I knew. I had a doctor and people around me that I could ask for help. And I had an amazing group of friends to talk to and hang out with.
I still had panic attacks often, usually for little to no reason. Though my brain battled me, I had agency over my body. I started expressing myself with clothing and style, I researched possible coping mechanisms I could use. I made a new goal for high school: to become more confident.
And I did. But oh my, it wasn’t easy.
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, even when 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.
I still struggle. I still get anxious. There are some days where all I feel is sad, bitter, and depressed. Sometimes I have a major panic attack at home or break down 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’ve made. Looking back, I realize that I first needed to truly realize what my issues 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 came developing coping skills and learning to love and be myself again, no matter how cliché it sounds. 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. All of this, I did it mostly on my own. 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. I regret not saying anything, but all I can do is persevere and continue to ask for help when needed.
I’m still learning, still experiencing, and
improving. I’m a work in progress, but I’m not giving up.