According to millennial myth, the algorithm for mental and physical peace is simple: You ditch your desk job and predictable boyfriend to hop time zones. You experiment with tropical yoga retreats. Maybe you microdose mushrooms at Burning Man. Maybe you climb Kilimanjaro. You document your journey one #nofilter sunset at a time. You rejoin society drunk on self-awareness — certain of your place in the world.
When reality resumes, you watch your henna tattoo fade as you scroll through Instagram.
If the road to self-love is that direct (and I followed the GPS), why did I spend so many years feeling worthless?
Since legal adulthood, I’ve concealed a mind-numbing depression. The kind that some days I could suppress and some days pinned me to the bathroom floor, spinning the wheel of emotional roulette. Which version of me will appear today? I hoped for the good version of me that was sweet to a fault and saw the potential in everyone. But I might be the other version: filled with self-hate, a prisoner of her own subconscious, incapable of stumbling out of bed except to binge Ben & Jerry’s and force it back up.
Having been raised in the “don’t air your dirty laundry” South, I believed the world would only accept me if I were discreet about my issues.
So I did the things I was told would make me healthy and whole: I bought my war paint at Sephora and my armor at Lululemon. I fueled myself with the holistic nutritionist-approved lowwholecarb30ketoSouthBeachjuicefast. I “found myself” through breathwork workshops and crystal healings in musty Brooklyn tenements. I invested thousands to GOOPify my life ― clawing my way toward an effortless exterior.
Every time I thought I’d escaped, depression barged back into my life.
I was doing everything Wellness Culture instructed: boiler room yoga, hygge-ing my home, choking down a fistful of daily supplements. So why was I still giving into “U up?” texts and numbing myself with Tito’s as penance?
Seeking a cure for my cure, I fell victim to influencer monologues claiming that if I simply decided to love myself, self-loathing would evaporate. “The power of positive thinking,” they said, as though you could simply outsmart mental illness.
So, I wrote in my gratitude journal while soaking in Epsom salts after SoulCycle. I religiously followed wellness gurus with their sculpted abs and permanent smiles, praying their “10 Steps to Love the Skin You’re In!” listicles would exorcise me. I thought I could remedy trauma and shame through healing rituals problematically disembodied from their native cultures and repackaged as mental health solutions.
I venerated an industry that sold me the promise of physical and mental perfection. With just one more session, reading, ride or mantra I would be shiny and new.
Thousands of Chase Sapphire swipes later, I’d moved as far as that yellow stationary bike.
In my relentless search for wholeness, I found that New Age wellness rituals (at least the ones that aren’t blatant cultural appropriation) can relieve temporary discomfort (and that infrared saunas are pretty damn fun). But gorging myself on green juice didn’t bring me one step closer to self-love. It left me desperate, financially drained and beholden to a fluffy culture that causes more harm than healing.
After years of drowning in consumerist self-care, alone in my apartment cluttered with crystals, succulents and a well-worn yoga mat, I found myself paralyzed in bed. Fully clothed, beneath a mountain of blankets, shaking uncontrollably. I’d hit my breaking point.
The week before, I’d left a crumbling relationship with a man I still loved. Sadly, he was still in a volatile relationship with another love: cocaine. In the days that followed, my dormant depression ensnared my mind. I clung to my meditation practice, my journal, my palo santo, but my tricks were futile this time. Defeated, I shut my phone off, silently surrendering to the disease.
It was my 28th birthday.
Since the day I turned my tassel to the left, I had mapped out the experiences and accomplishments that would validate me in this lifetime. Bare necessities included a healthy relationship, a fulfilling career and overwhelming self-love. But as I put the finishing touches on my 20s, all I’d attracted were men with substance-induced tempers, a demoralizing 9-to-5 and stage 4 depression.
My Himalayan salt lamp couldn’t heal my suppressed trauma. My yoga teacher couldn’t fix my eating disorder. I couldn’t smudge away toxic exes, no matter how much sage I burned.
Self-care practices are great when you already love yourself. They help healthy, whole people savor life. Despite what I saw on Instagram or read in women’s magazines, my depression could not be healed with ceremony. Ultimately, I needed clinical therapy for that.
Self-care for me was a butterfly bandage where deep psychological and emotional cuts required stitches. A trained professional had to pierce the wound with a needle, sewing it shut, one dripping segment at a time. My prognosis required being completely taken apart and pieced back together. But therapy didn’t just close my wound ― it healed the infection beneath the surface.
My earliest days of therapy were my darkest. Every week I left slumped over in a cab ― my body couldn’t walk me 10 blocks home. I was tormented by nightmares. I cried to the point of vomiting. My hair fell out in clumps. I lived in this pattern for months, resenting myself for not leaving my demons alone. I could have been dancing on East Village tables, getting high on attention, instead of undergoing what felt like an ongoing lobotomy.
Therapy sliced right through my #nofilter bullshit. Stripped of my self-care crash diets, all I had left was the painful truth.
It’s. Hard. Ass. Work. I confessed my psychosis to a stranger. I committed to the most vulnerable relationship of my life, when I’d never truly committed to anything, or anyone. I didn’t break focus for a year — no dating, no distractions. My therapist, Susan, trained me to confront the past, destroy enmeshment, and kill trauma inflicted by the lack of self-respect and invisible boundaries I’d known since childhood.
I experienced new sensations, like a foreign emotion called anger. I observed that when I speak, people actually hear my voice, and they listen. I stopped apologizing for having an opinion. I liberated my imperfections and let them breathe for the first time.
Susan rewired my brain to know love — that I’m worthy of love — and I’m forever grateful. Our work, combined with a daily dose of serotonin peacekeepers, gave way to an excruciating, beautiful process. I now understand the paramount love that exists between my own head and heart, not at the SoulCycle on Lafayette or the Full Moon Party in Thailand.
Wellness rituals, mindfulness and other forms of intervention are the antidote for many. But in my case, therapy and medication were the only way to excavate my purpose and honor my pain, finally uncaging the real me.
Today, there are still emotional scars that hurt faintly when touched, but I remain committed to recovery. Just as there are no quick fixes, there are no permanent ones either.
The only semi-permanent imprint is the one I leave in Susan’s chair each week.
Sometimes I still enjoy green juice on hot afternoons, and I inch closer to mastering crow pose each week. I meditate before bed and occasionally glance at the Sagittarius horoscope (just in case). After all, these are gratifying practices for a quick boost. But they are blatantly dangerous when substituted for professional help.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.