It’s been quiet on this website for a while. I hope that will change, but I don’t know when. In the interest of full disclosure, this post isn’t about food; it’s about mental health – and it’s long. It’s the only post on this topic that I have planned, so if it isn’t your thing, just come back next time :).
I wanted to tell you all the story of what’s happening with me, what happened to me before, and how I’m getting better. I want to play a role in sustaining the dialogue about mental health and encouraging people who need it to get help. So, here’s an abridged history of my grappling with mental illness.
This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled.
Many years ago, I went through a bout of severe depression, which almost completely incapacitated me. I quit my job because I didn’t feel like going; came close to failing out of college; spent most days in my room crying; and hid almost all of this from the people around me.
As that period of time stretched longer and longer, feeling that I was at rock bottom already, I sensed nothing to lose by dabbling in drugs. One in particular gave me a feeling of satisfaction that I had all but forgotten, and while in a strange way my depression began to fade, different problems were beginning. I would spend the next several years swinging wildly on a pendulum of mental highs and lows, and as a result I would miss out on many crucial formative experiences that should have been occurring in my early twenties.
Eventually I clawed my way out of that. Some of it was work that I put in; some of it was good fortune, and inherent privilege from which I benefit. Frankly, some it was nondeterministic happenstance. Nevertheless, I managed to find myself on a better path than the one I had been on.
Over the years since then, I’ve lived a successful life. I’ve experienced a lot of happiness, I’ve had relationships that helped me grow, I’ve made tons of mistakes and I have learned a lot. For many of them, I’ve run this website, which has been an incredible journey in itself! Depression has knocked at my door again many times, sometimes coupled with anxiety problems too; leaning on everything I’ve learned and improved about myself, I’d never fully relapsed until 2020 came around.
The past several months culminated in a mental health free-fall for me.
This time, for me, it started slowly. Pangs of depression here and there, fixed with a change of scenery and some fresh air. Twinges of anxiety that I snapped out of. I made sure to stay positive, and I assumed that it would pass.
Then, they started to linger a little bit more. Instead of bad moments, I was having bad days; then, strings of them. I made a list of things to do for self-care, and no matter what happened, I tried to do everything on the list, every day. I felt like I was working on things. I was still doing activities that I enjoy, spending time with my partner, and pursuing goals.
Then, it started taking away my sleep. I would lie awake in bed, worrying about anything and everything. I tried to push the anxiety and depression away and that struggle just made them more powerful.
Falling asleep would take me hours, or sometimes it wouldn’t really happen at all. I would wake up in the morning and feel like the only intention I could muster for the day was to survive it, to stay afloat until bedtime. I started to fear sleep and the failure I was beginning to associate with it, and I was quickly in a downward spiral.
When you’re exhausted, a lot of your mental faculties abandon you too. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, or get much of anything done. With nothing else to fill my head, that just made more room for anxiety, and worry, and eventually, panic. It didn’t matter the topic; everything that happened to me, or that I did, started to have a negative gleam. Every event felt unlucky, and every slight toward me felt deliberate.
Normally, I’m a resilient and positive person, with boundless enthusiasm and a joyful attitude. Normally, I love myself and I’m confident. But slowly, over the course of some months, I became in some ways entirely different from that: pessimistic, easily discouraged, very unsure, and sometimes altogether paranoid. I was covering those things up, mostly. But once I stopped sleeping, I couldn’t do that anymore.
I stopped showing up to work, almost completely. I stopped cooking, almost completely. I stopped reading books, I stopped doing yoga, and I started letting clutter build up in my home. Worst of all, I stopped loving myself. The thoughts in my head have not been kind. At some point I became aware of all of this, and I could painfully see how far I would have to travel to get back to where I had been.
I have had some incredibly bad nights. Once, I was staying at my boyfriend’s place and couldn’t sleep. I eventually left in a panic at 3 in the morning to go home. My life was in danger, driving a car while so utterly mentally bankrupt. After I (thankfully) reached my destination, I still couldn’t sleep. I eventually fell asleep at 5:30, for just 90 minutes, my brain waking me back up with generic, pointless fright. I spent the next day too tired to do anything, but still too anxious to relax. Imagine being so depleted you can barely walk up the stairs, while your heart continues to pound in your chest anyway.
I should have gotten help before that event ever happened. But amazingly, even that didn’t get me to. It took another several weeks, and another terrible night. That time, my boyfriend was awake with me for hours in the middle of the night while I anxiously cried, cycling again through everything that was unnerving me. I care about the people in my life too much, especially him, to want any of them to lose sleep over me, and that feeling is what managed to propel me the following day to finally schedule an appointment with a therapist.
It gets better.
There are a lot of things that we can all do to support our mental health and tweak things that aren’t quite right – and we should do those things. But I’ve been very sick, and mental illness should be addressed with professional help. This is a belief that I’ve always held; this isn’t my first time going to therapy and it likely won’t be my last. My only regret in this case is not taking that step sooner. Ideally, it wouldn’t take worrying about someone else to get help for myself. That’s part of the self-love that I’m working on.
I’ve always been lucky, even if things have felt unlucky for me lately. I’m lucky that my employer is working with me to keep my job while all of this is happening. I’m lucky that I have a supporter in my life who is gently encouraging me to get the help that I need, and caring about me when I’m not myself. I’m lucky that even though they’re thousands of miles away, I have a family that loves me, too. I’m privileged that I can access mental health care.
My journey back to mental wellness is beginning at the moment. I feel a little bit better. Next week, I hope it will be a little more. I know that eventually it will be a lot better – because I’ve lived through this before, and the life I’ve had since then has been nothing short of wonderful.
I’m not ashamed of what I’m going through, and nobody else should be ashamed of what they’re going through. This is happening to me, but I’m getting help. You can do the same, and the more we all talk about it, the better we’ll all be.
Your mind is everything you have; it’s your interface to the world. Working on it can seem very scary for all sorts of reasons, but it will make your life better. Don’t let it get as bad as I did before allowing yourself to be helped. (And to be sure, please know that you’re never too old to work on things. Humans can experience neuroplasticity for the full duration of their lives. Here’s a great podcast about that.)
I found my current counselor through BetterHelp and attend sessions virtually. It was the easiest approach for me while this pandemic is still going on. To get started with therapy, all you have to do is show up once! You have nothing to lose from that.
If any part of my experience resonates with you, and you aren’t sure what to do next, please feel welcome to reach out to me (in the comments, or firstname.lastname@example.org). I see you, I understand, and I care.
Oh, and if you managed to make it all the way through the entirety of this tome, thank you very much for reading :).
P.S. If you are in urgent need of help, or considering self-harm, please call 1-800-273-8255 at any hour to speak with someone who cares.