Mental health is a journey. The path is rarely easy to traverse and at times you may not know where you are going or even why you should continue to move forward. Mental illness is a dark and confusing place, and many of us may carry its stones in our pockets for life. Sometimes these stones may be too heavy a burden to carry and so we feel that the journey may not be worth taking.
I want to discuss my personal journey of mental health, but I find myself caught between a place of professionalism and personal transparency while writing this blog. Mental illness is such a personal struggle, which has allowed so many of us to feel isolated and alone, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. So to those reading, all I can say is that I hope that you don’t mind taking a look into my life, beyond the facts and statistics. This is what my journey looked like…
I was born into a family that wasn’t ready for or interested in a child. I was unexpected (and not exactly wanted). I was born to an alcoholic mother and a distant father. There is much to be said about the feeling of being wanted where you are. Have you ever walked into a room busy with pleasant chatter and had everyone stop speaking and look over their shoulders at you when you arrived? I imagine that’s what my birth was like. That feeling sticks with me today.
I became a quiet, private child with thoughts a little too big for my head and feelings way too big for my heart. If I were to use three words to describe my childhood self they would be: sensitive, quiet, and melancholy. Happiness was a concept I often witnessed in cartoons but had no real understanding of. My parents were often separated or seemed to be devising ways to end each other. There were more than a few moments when I was caught in the cross-fire, both emotionally and physically.
When I became a young adult the fearful feelings and thoughts of my younger years stuck with me. I often found myself feeling as though the world was too small a place for me or that I simply was not meant to be. I longed for, more than anything, a sense of safety and belonging. I thought that if I could just find where I belonged that I would be safe and that would make me happy. I did not feel as though I belonged and I did not feel worthy of belonging. I felt like a burden attempting to find some poor soul to carry its weight. This unfortunately led me to allow people to treat me the way that I felt, which was like garbage. I felt as though I did not deserve to be treated better because people were already doing me such a great service by not pushing me away.
Of course this was not a sensible path to happiness or maintaining my mental health. I was still unable to acknowledge myself as a person who could give the love worthy of a friendship. Somehow I could not see myself as worthy of any positivity at all. I felt burdensome, guilty, and unhappy. These things were not new to me, but it was at this point in my life that I was told something that made me begin to reframe my thoughts: “You just like to be sad!” This opened my eyes to the severe disconnect between my mental state and that of others. How could anyone think that anybody wanted to be sad all the time? I began to see how my moods were being perceived by others and that something was not right.
THE TEENAGE YEARS
As a teenager I began my first romantic relationship. I believed that maybe love was the element that was missing from my life. Love and Happiness seemed like such close friends, and being a novice to both, I suppose a part of me figured that this could be the answer. For the first time in my life I lived in a safe home, felt love for someone who loved me, and thought that the issues I had faced would fade away. When this did not happen as quickly as I liked, I tried to detach myself from my emotions. I carried a journal in which I would write about my day and my moods. When I was feeling okay I would sign my name Ariel, when I was feeling particularly depressed I would sign Alisana, and when I was suffering from a particularly bad bout of dissociation I would sign Sophia. I wanted so desperately to remove myself from these emotions, as if they were separate entities from me. I wanted them to be.
This was the period of my life in which I started to realize that there was really something wrong with the way that I was feeling day to day. Before this period of my life, every single day had been filled with some form of abuse, dysfunction, or neglect. At that time it had made sense to me to feel anxious and depressed, but why now when I was cared for and safe? These thoughts came to a breaking point when after a particularly bad argument with my romantic partner concerning my moods he exclaimed, “I’m tired of trying to make you happy.” It had never crossed my mind that it was his obligation to make me happy. I had been so caught up in my own quest for happiness that it never occurred to me that someone else could make you happy, or that they would feel that they needed to. Suddenly my path to happiness no longer felt like it was just about me. In my mind there was something wrong with me and I needed to figure out what it was, not just for my sake, but for my loved ones.
THE COLLEGE YEARS
The next step of my journey began when I was in college. I was going to school full-time, working two to three part-time jobs, in a relationship, and just trying to stay above the millions of thoughts and feelings consuming my brain. I did not have time to do anything but study, attend classes, and sometimes sleep. It was at this stage in my life that I learned how vicious and invasive stress and depression can be. I began to get sick a lot. Colds and fevers escalated to strep-throat and tonsillitis. Then the horrific skin rashes began. On my nightly commute home I could not go more than fifteen minutes without seriously thinking about driving my car off the road into a tree or telephone pole. I began to dissociate more and more, into my school work, out of my car when I was driving, I had no control over when I might feel this complete disconnect from my body and my mind. But I convinced myself that I was just too busy to take my mental health seriously. I had papers to write, meetings to attend, and maybe a few hours of sleep to catch.
The evening of my graduation from university I flew to Ireland and began a month and a half trip that genuinely changed the way that I saw myself and my mental health. In the time that I was abroad I learned what it was to be a “normal” human being. This was the first time in my life that I did not feel depressed or anxious. It was the first time that my OCD was completely silent and I felt truly at home in my body and in my brain. More than anything, it was the first time in my life that I had ever felt happy. There are no words that can properly describe exactly how it felt to be free of the symptoms of my mental illnesses for a time, but I truly hope that every single person who faces a mental illness of their own can experience it at least once in their life.
THE DARK AGES: POST-EUROPE
Then there was the year after Europe. If my life were akin to the history of the world, this would have been my Dark Age. I had felt alive and happy and light while I was abroad, and the moment that I returned home the baggage of mental illness settled back onto me. I began to get sick again. I was plagued by excruciating back and tooth pain for months at a time. I had horrific nightmares every single night for roughly five months. I suddenly gained an excessive amount of weight. I would sleep away most of the days, and weeks could pass without me really taking notice. I could see myself stepping off the path and giving up. I had no job, no close friends to turn to, and I was in a terrible living situation. I felt no motivation to wake up in the morning or eat or live. It would have been easy to lose my drive and my passions and embrace the void. I can honestly say that I was ready to commit suicide. I was beginning to think about it every day and night, and there was a point in which the idea of it became my only comfort.
This was the period of my life in which I learned that I had to take care of my mental health. I really had to dedicate myself to recognizing that I wasn’t just dealing with sadness or stress, I was dealing with serious mental illness. I also needed to realize that I had to do something about it or I wasn’t going to make it out. A vacation or a really good bar of chocolate was never going to be enough to cure me. I had to do more for myself.
I started seeing a therapist and discussing the possibility of medication. I began practicing self-care by allowing myself to do things that I enjoy, like taking baths and eating when I am hungry. I took a serious interest in my own passions and bought myself a typewriter for my writing and art supplies for my artistic ventures. I let go of friendships that were not helping me and I made more of an effort to maintain friendships that supported me.
This might all seem very obvious and simple to most people, but for me it really was a journey that had to be undergone. I don’t want to give the impression that I am “on the other side”. I’m not. I still struggle every single day, but I am no longer telling myself that I’m just weird or that it will go away on its own. I’m still attending therapy and was recently prescribed some medication that may or may not help me. Either way, it’s a step I might not have taken before, so I guess the journey was worth taking.
This is a photo of a happy Ari in London.