As a mental health advocate, I make an effort to share my personal mental illness experiences with others. Blogging is likely my largest platform for doing so. Readers who have followed my blogs from the start are undoubtedly familiar with the fact that I live with anxiety and depression. I am incredibly open about my diagnoses, treatments, and past struggles and encourage others to share their stories if and when they can. However, I rarely write about my struggles when I’m in the thick of them.
Sure, I might post about having an “off day” or needing to focus on self-care; I talk about how medication and therapy are part of my routine. Rarely (if ever) do I say I’m struggling.
So, here it goes: I’m struggling and I have been for the past several weeks. Since the start of the semester my anxiety – and subsequently my depression – has ramped up. I’ve been tense, on edge, in low spirits, and exhausted, physically and mentally. And I didn’t tell anybody until last night.
After a few days of essentially withdrawing and letting things fall to the wayside, I felt it was time to address the other executive members of the organization of which I am president and explain what was up. Doing so was surprisingly difficult. I spent the entire evening thinking about what I would say and didn’t actually send a message until several hours after the idea first occurred to me. Then, I put my phone away, afraid to look and read the responses.
The organization these people and I belong to is literally built on de-stigmatizing mental health. I’ve shared bits of my story with them and with our general membership in the past and at this point, my diagnoses are likely common knowledge. Even so, I froze several times before telling them. I stared at my blank phone screen and wondered what to type before entering it in my Notes and copy/pasting it in Messages.
The vulnerability that comes with being in the thick of things, with reaching out to others and saying, “This situation is serious,” is soul-shaking. Unlike cracking a joke or telling a story of perseverance, telling other people about a current struggle feels very much like admitting a weakness. “Hey, I’m down here in this deep, dark hole,” seems a lot less encouraging than, “Hey, look at that deep, dark hole I just climbed out of!”
But mental illness isn’t necessarily encouraging. It can definitely lead to some encouraging experiences, but most of the time, it’s just draining. It’s also super good at hiding. Despite the frequency with which I talk about my mental health, it’s not usually apparent when I’m struggling. Even though I’ve been through multiple trainings on recognizing signs of distress in others, it’s still difficult to recognize them in myself.
Struggle looks different on everyone, but mine is nearly invisible to the naked eye. My struggle looks like a big smile and a sense of humor. It’s staying super busy so I don’t have to pay attention to what’s under the surface. It’s forgetting: forgetting to reply to texts, forgetting to get my laundry out of the washer, forgetting to finish eating the dinner I just began. It’s messy: clothes and other items strewn throughout my room, bags not yet unpacked from Winter Break. It’s my eyebrows gone untamed. It’s nights awake until 3am.
None of these things taken individually are tell-tale signs. Maybe I’m just a busy college student or perhaps I got lazy and left my laundry for too long.
But in reality I’m struggling. This isn’t a cry for help; I’ve been here and done this many a time and I do have a great support system. Just bear in mind that if I seem low on energy, or withdrawn, or I haven’t texted you back in six days, there are other forces at play and I’m not trying to push anyone away. I just hope that someday these difficult things will roll off my tongue with the same ease as, “I have a sore throat and it doesn’t feel too great, but hopefully it will go away soon.”
…Now I just have to work up the nerve to publish this.