I turned 25 last month and (big surprise!) I am still depressed and every much the ball of anxiety I was when I was 18.
While I’m learning to accept this will most likely be a constant part of my life, there are days when I cannot help but feel angry, useless, broken and even disappointed in myself for still feeling this way. As if somehow it was my fault and I had failed at curing myself in the past seven years since I first started having symptoms. So I decide to come up with a couple of things I have learned about living with depression and anxiety — proving to myself that I am better than I was before.
Lesson #1: Remove the Stigma
I’ve been trying to be more outspoken about my illness. I don’t get into the nitty gritty details of the lows, the self-hatred, the difficulty I have breathing on my way to work some mornings or the times when I wake up with the sad realization that “oh damn I’m still here!”
But I am very open about my diagnosis, the medicine I take and my much-needed therapy. Two years ago my anxiety made me feel like the world would end if anyone knew about my “secret.” Instead, opening up not only helped me accept myself a little bit more, it also resulted in others reaching out to me for advice or help regarding some of their own experiences with mental illness.
Don’t get me wrong, the extent of my advice is, “Hey, talk to someone!” “Go to therapy!” or, my personal favorite (because it’s always true), “You are an amazing human being.” But the idea that maybe not being ashamed of my mental illness can help someone else feel a little more comfortable in their skin does make me feel better. I’m not your next Mother Theresa, but I’ll take feeling good about myself as much as I can.
Lesson #2: Good vs. Bad Therapy
I’ve had about five different therapist and let me tell you this: life is too short to pay someone your hard earned money when they’re not your best fit. Shout-out to my current therapist for being able to work with me, listening and calling me out and, most importantly, being so understanding when I cancel last minute because of some silly excuse that she knows just means I wasn’t having my best day.
If you went to therapy once and didn’t like it, I fully recommending trying different people. It doesn’t even have to be a psychologist! There are plenty of people out there who are qualified and ready to listen. Do what works for you, but don’t be discouraged when it takes time to find the right fit.
Lesson #3: Communication Is Key
My first five years of being diagnosed with depression and anxiety was when I had moved halfway across the world for college. As a result of that, I had the ability to hide everything from my family. It was a very isolating, very violent and very reckless form of my depression.
Moving in with my family after college forced me to let people into that part of me. Before speaking out it was easy to mistake my inability to get out of bed or take care of myself as laziness or a lack of interest in spending time with them. They knew I had depression and anxiety, but they didn’t fully understand it and therefore they did not understand me. Taking them with me to therapy was probably the most nervous I have been about anything ever, and I was mortified to let them in my safe space — but it did a lot of good. It’s surprising how much people can learn and grow if you give them the benefit of the doubt and let them help. In the past two years, I’ve been a lot more open with my family and close friends, allowing me to reach out when I am not feeling 100%. It reminds me that, despite what depression wants me to believe, I am not alone and I am very much loved.
Lesson #4: Baby Steps
I found the key to not feeling like a failure is accepting the fact that everything is going to come slowly. It’s been very important for me to simply set small and realistic goals that I can achieve and measure easily. You can’t imagine the number of days I would wake up and say, “This is it, I’m getting my life together!” I would change everything about my routine — meditate, workout, read, eat healthy, yoga, etc. I would get a rush of adrenaline and the next morning you could find me doing all of these things and more, only to get completely overwhelmed and stop doing them two days later. It would be easy to then spiral into a cycle of self-deprecation for not being able to all of a sudden sustain the lifestyle of a superhero.
Baby steps are key. Choose one thing to focus on and let everything else stay the same. Progress isn’t achieved overnight. It’s a slow burning process of small actions over the course of a really long time. Celebrate the little things!
Lesson #5: It’s OK to Be Anxious and Depressed
For the longest time I never knew what my relationship with my illness should be. I would either deny these feelings so much they would explode out of me in a rage of destructive behavior of my choosing, or I would indulge in them so much that I would fall into this dark, dark cycle of numbness and loneliness that I didn’t think I would ever come out of.
Now, with the help of therapy, I finally got to a place where I can be depressed or be anxious in a way that allows me to understand that how I feel is OK and that it will not be there forever. It will come and it will go. It will come again and maybe stay longer than before. But it will always go again.
In the meantime, as I wait for this uninvited guest to pack their things again, I have learned to treat myself with love, take care of myself and understand what my mind and body need. It’s OK to take a mental health day, it’s OK to cry for no apparent reason, it’s OK to lie awake in the middle of the night with millions of thoughts raising through your head. It is not OK to hurt yourself or blame yourself for not being able to make them go away at will. Feel it, understand where and why it’s coming from, and find a healthy outlet to pass the time.
Lesson #6: It Doesn’t Define Me
I used to think depression and anxiety were the “real” me. Everything else was an act I would put on for my friends and family. Now, I’ve come to realize that is as ridiculous as letting someone be defined by a cold or a broken foot. Yes, it is a huge part of my life that I will always live with, and it has shaped me in ways good and bad, but it does not define who I am nor does it come close to being the most interesting thing about me.
So here’s to 25. I have no idea what this year is going to look like. I can already tell there will be plenty of times I might need a little extra care and love, but I am still here so let’s get at it.