As this is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I’ve mentioned before that I’ve known anxiety and depression, I would be remiss not to talk about it.
I remember when I was fifteen, it was my brother’s fifth birthday party, I suddenly had a choice: stay at the party or go to a concert with my aunt and uncle. I was a little bit sleep deprived, but I’d been fine up until then. I couldn’t choose. Both were good, but I’d be disappointing someone either way I went. I felt like I’d be letting down the family to leave and I felt like I’d be letting myself down to not go. It was like my brain froze and my emotions went on fast forward. And I broke. My first anxiety attack happened in front of the whole family because there was no way for me to conquer the pressure to be perfect and please everyone. So, I fell apart and ruined both my experience of the party I was at and the chance to go to the concert.
I was bullied a lot in school, constantly told by my peers that I wasn’t good enough. I already never felt good enough by the standards of those in authority. You must get good grades and choose the right career and never step out of line and somehow still do that while everyone around you is redrawing those lines. Life can seem like a lose-lose situation.
Looking back, I wonder if I had suspicions about my sexuality, but growing up in the purity culture of the church left a very high standard of right and wrong that was never allowed to be challenged. You can’t screw up a relationship because relationships are the epitome of life and love and you only get one chance and it must be perfect and last forever. I was a perfectionist and an idealist and thought that made perfect sense. The mixture of the two, not feeling good enough while aiming for nothing less than perfection, that wasn’t terrifying at all! Oh wait, it may have been just a tiny bit intimidating. Alright, it may have been so absolutely mortifying that I didn’t let myself get close to people for the next decade or two. But, ya know, it’s not like rejection, loneliness, and fear of failure can become (or exacerbate) something like depression. It’s not like repressing yourself into the least you can be so as not to offend anyone is an unhealthy thing, right? Except that you hate yourself. You hate that you care about others and what they think of you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for purity, monogamy, and aiming for life-long commitment, but where is the grace for our human ability to royally screw things up? Same goes with school and life in general, we can’t be perfect. And, all that pressure was with me convincing myself I was straight! I don’t think I’d have survived had I realized the truth back then.
I’ve recently formed a theory. Even if you aren’t aware of denying a part of yourself, you still feel the impending doom of failure. That doom can start out as mild discomfort, knowing you’re different, a slight sense of separation from the tribe you most want to belong to. You know that some day down the road, you will slip up and show that you aren’t what people think, and they will reject you. Then you will be nothing. This can be different things for everyone. Will they realize I’m not as smart as they think and respect me less? Will they discover that scar/fat/acne/whatever that I try to hide and they won’t find me beautiful? Will they see all my flaws and my failings and those will be all I’ll ever be to them? What if they discover I love Lyle Lovett music and they’ll make fun of me? Will they see my anxiety and depression as a burden and not think I’m worth the time and effort of their friendship? It can literally be anything that makes you feel isolated from the rest of humanity. That is the first light bulb burning out and ushering in the darkness, because you attempt to separate yourself from yourself.
I think the body and mind almost make a subconscious suicide pact to get this misery over with as soon as possible and so they start to shut down. First, your self esteem goes, if you had any. Then any social functioning skills. Then your ability to see anything good about yourself or life or anyone else. Then your health and pain management abilities fail. This can escalate into various conditions from fibromyalgia, migraines, insomnia, chronic fatigue, all of which I’ve experienced. It can even take the form of more destructive and even fatal diseases. Whatever the form your deterioration takes, it continues until you become a withered shadow of your soul huddled in a darkened corner, praying it was over already.
I am eternally grateful for J.K. Rowling who conquered her own depression and depicted it so vividly as the dementors in the Harry Potter series. The fog of sorrow; the suffocating realization that you’ll never be happy again; the way it affects everyone to different degrees according to the amount of pain they’d known before; the punishment of feeling there is nothing worth living for because all you can imagine ever again knowing is this cold, desolate, Azkaban prison cell of life. How many years is life? Because that is the shortest sentence you can hope for. Is there any wonder so many pray to die and so many commit, or at least attempt, suicide? But she did even more than create a well-crafted monster to encapsulate her enemy, she created a way to fight it. If you can hold on to something happy, something that means everything to you, that thought will embody itself into your patronus that will do the fighting for you. It will warm you on the coldest days. It will light up the darkness that threatens to swallow you whole. And a chunk of chocolate doesn’t hurt, either.
I know, for myself, coming to terms with several things, including my sexuality and my inability to be what everyone else wanted me to be, was a huge first step in fighting that battle. I had to really look at myself and, with God’s help, accept myself in all of my randomly weird ways, and the darkness started to lighten. The reality of who I am, all my flaws and failings, all my quirks and inconsistencies, they make me me for a reason. I’m not always clear on what that reason is, but I know God has a plan for my mess. And recovery is an uphill battle. It is constant reminders of better choices and being kind to yourself; knowing when to push yourself past your limits to succeed and knowing when to let yourself rest and heal so you can push again tomorrow. It took me a long time before I found my patronus, and I actually have a few of them, but I’m still not immune. I fear every day that I could be that shell of a person again. So, every day I conjure up a patronus, sometimes drawing a name or symbol on my arm with a black sharpie as a reminder during a tough or intimidating time. I simply never let myself forget what I am worth and what my dreams are worth, and I fight back. I fight every day because I know that life can be good again. I know that there is hope after the darkness.