“You need to develop a tougher skin,”
“You’re such a cry-baby,”
“You’re too sensitive,”
These are the phrases that come to mind when I look back on my childhood. Everyone-parents, teachers, classmates, cousins, aunts and uncles-told me these things. I’ve heard it spoken maliciously by my peers, exhaustively by my elders, and concernedly by my loved ones. Regardless of intention, every instance in which it has been said to me carried with it a negative connation. “Sensitive” was used to convey a defect in my personality that needed to be fixed. Being told to “toughen up” was a way of signifying that how I felt was somehow my fault. No one ever considered the possibility that this trait was beyond anyone’s control, especially my own.
I have suffered from depression and anxiety since as early as I can remember. Feelings of hopelessness, despair, and guilt plagued my childhood. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy like other kids, or why there was seemingly no one who understood where I was coming from. I desperately wanted to fit in and yet, it felt like the harder that I tried the less I was accepted. Even amongst my family I struggled to find support. I was excluded from activities, stolen from, yelled at, and told that I was ugly by my cousins. My aunts and uncles did nothing to alleviate my situation instead choosing to further bully, wrongfully blame, punish, and exclude me. These people-the ones I was most frequently surrounded by-only exacerbated my illness, leading to deep-rooted complexes and insecurities that I continue to struggle with.
By the summer of my thirteenth year I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and major depressive disorder. I’d gotten to the point where all I could physically handle was laying on the couch to watch television. Thankfully, my mother realized the severity of my state and sought psychiatric and therapeutic help for me. Things got better slowly: my shyness receded somewhat and I gained a better control of my sobbing episodes. But even then, it took me several years to truly understand exactly what it was I was suffering from.
As I moved onto middle and high school, I had realized that being “popular” (both in and out of school) was out of the question for me, so I opted for a new solution: romance. Romantic T.V. shows, movies, and books had all led me to believe that having a boyfriend would somehow fix me. I vividly remember daydreaming during class about what it would be like to be in love. I saw it as a means of proving that there was hope for me, that I wasn’t completely undesirable. So during my sophomore year when I discovered that a boy (that I hardly knew) liked me, I made it a mission to be with him.
At first, our relationship was everything I’d ever dreamed of. Kissing in the rain, holding hands, cuddling…it was a fairy tale come to life. However, deep down I knew from the start that we weren’t good for each other. I’d imagined his identity before actually meeting him in person and I think he knew that. He tried to keep up with me for a long while but, he couldn’t do it forever. Eventually, he began lying to me, neglecting me, and using drugs*. Deep down, I knew these things were happening but I was in denial. I continued taking the blame for his poor behavior because I believed that I didn’t deserve better. I’d spent so much time seeking validation from him that I’d lost any sense of my own value.
* I’m not saying using drugs/being a drug addict makes someone a bad person, but rather that his drug use affected his mental health negatively.
Eventually, I went away to college and our relationship completely fell apart. It was already rocky before I left but, I simply figured that we’d get through it because we loved each other. Once I was actually gone however, he began feeding me preposterous lies to cover up what he was doing behind my back. Many nights I’d stay up late fighting with him on the phone until he eventually stopped contacting me. He was ignoring me because he wanted to leave me and I couldn’t handle it.
In retrospect, it’s funny how my break-down coincided with a hurricane-also sharing my nickname-as if the weather was predicting my inevitable downfall. The week prior to the storm I hardly ate, spoke to anyone, or slept. I would spend countless hours in my dorm room alone, yelling at the ceiling as I sobbed my heart out. During the day I walked around campus like a zombie, feeling as if there was nothing left to live for. I had experienced low points before but, never like this. I was quickly withering away and I needed help.
The following eight months involved dropping out of college, a short stay at a psych ward, and another desperate attempt at mending my broken relationship. If it weren’t for my parents and my dad’s side of the family, I don’t know how I would have survived. They encouraged me to get a job, take my medications, be open and honest about my feelings, and to leave the toxic relationship I was in. Their patience and empathy taught me that I was deserving of loyalty, honesty, and genuine love. Without them I might not have made it and I can never repay them for my life.
Despite all my progress since then, I would be lying if I said I was no longer suffering from depression and anxiety. I continue to make mistakes, relapse into old habits, and learn about my illness. Mental illness is a life-long struggle and every day is a new challenge to rise above my disease. I have found that the best way to achieve stability is also the most painful, difficult way: I had to step out of my comfort zone. By working in retail, going back to school, and trying new things (like exercise, hanging out with coworkers, volunteering, etc.) I have healed immensely. Of course, some days are great and some are unbearable. But, coping in this way is what helps me to live a relatively normal, healthy life. It is only in overcoming my fears that I have begun to heal from the damage my illness has caused me.
Three and a half years have gone by since I crashed and burned that fall semester at college. My anger with my ex has mostly turned into sympathy for him and his struggles; my resentment of my mom’s side of the family remains but, I’m slowly learning to forgive them. In doing so I have blossomed into a much stronger person who has been able to succeed in both work and school. I no longer allow others to belittle me or my feelings; I have successfully surrounded myself with an amazing support system of coworkers, family, and friends. And although not everything is okay-in fact, a lot of my life isn’t-I know that I will be. I now see the value in myself that has always been there. I am worthy of goodness, love, and happiness regardless of others opinions or treatment of me
I urge everyone who struggles with mental illness to reach out for help like I have. It will change your life in incredible ways. It won’t be easy but it’s truly worth it.
Always remember you are not alone.