Depression and anxiety are a part of life for everyone. People experience highs and lows in life. Losing a job or a loved one can cause a state of depression. A fight with a family member or an interview can cause anxiety. However, with clinical anxiety and depression, your everyday life is affected. A lot of people struggle to understand it. Family and friends have a hard time seeing why we are the way that we are. I see anxiety and depression as a hamster wheel I can’t seem to remove myself from. For instance, the anxiety associated with regret and choices I’ve made leads to hours and days in bed for fear of facing the world. The days in bed lead to the depression state that I am unable to “handle” life. The wheel continues and becomes a spiral- and when I found myself at the very bottom, I looked death in the eye. This is not a story of “picking myself up by my bootstraps.” It’s not a story of “choosing happiness.” It’s not about “putting on my big girl panties.” If you live with clinical anxiety and depression, you know it’s not a matter of will. If it were, you would have willed yourself out of it a long time ago. My story is about being a 30-year-old woman with anxiety and depression, losing friends and jobs, living alone (with my dog, Meryl), identifying toxic relationships, feeling unloved and invalidated, and struggling to live in a world where mental illness is “hush hush” and a sign of weakness. This is my story about facing the stigma, pushing back, and giving a voice to the struggle. While I do not believe happiness is a choice, my series of current choices are leading me to feel better about who I am. My mental illness has changed from an identity to a recovery. Even though I will never fully recover from this illness, I am seeing it in a new light, facing it head on, and accepting myself through the struggle. I hope you will join me on this journey.
I need to write about my broken heart. When I went through the treacherous road of quitting my job due to my mental illness, I sent a very nervous text to my teammates. Not only that, but I was trying to find the source of gossip- talk about losing friends! No one would admit it. However, people I had never met somehow knew I had a mental illness. I was paranoid, to say the least.
Then, I found myself going “crazy” looking for the source of the gossip about me, which, in turn, made me look more “crazy.” I was texting and calling everyone to find the source of it. I did not understand why so many people knew, but apparently no one was talking about it.
Let’s get to the meeting with my boss…. FMLA was violated in four ways:
- I had to work during my medical leave- it was expected because I was out due to “mental illness” so it wasn’t on the same caliber as other illness. I had to make sub plans and copies during my medical leave. Also, many teachers out on maternity or sick leave have to do the same thing, which is crazy.
- My personal medical information was told to people I did not disclose it to: I had to attend a meeting where a man I never met (the new Vice Principal) sat in and talked to me about my personal medical records.
- I was told I must come back to work as soon as possible- due to my medical leave, it was not reason enough to be gone even with a doctor’s note. I was told I wasn’t communicating enough, though I sent countless emails and had phone calls with the Principal. I was told many parents were calling with concern and wanting to transfer out of my class.
- I was told by my boss that my contract would not be renewed because of my medical leave (I would not have a job after May).
When I went to see a lawyer about all these violations, he said I would not have a case because I was suing an “already broke system.”
He said, “No one will support you suing a school district.”
I told him the reasons for the lawsuit were so that it would never happen to anyone else. I didn’t want money. I wanted to change the conversation.
I have to say it was even lower than I felt when I was in the hospital recovering. It has left a nasty scar I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from.
I’m unsure about what I could’ve done besides resign from my position. I felt cornered, alone, frightened, and frustrated. How could I possibly enter back into that work environment? Where everyone was gossiping about my leave, I wouldn’t be allowed to work there the following year, I lost the respect of my boss, and people I never met were making assumptions about me.
I ended up resigning.
My teammates never responded to me when I told them I had to resign for mental health reasons.
The point is…..
The system is not working. When it comes to mental health, it is not taken seriously like physical health might be. Had I been out for physical health like cancer or a car accident, I feel my reality would be very different.
So, my heart broke. I couldn’t believe that the people I worked with and loved and cared about had nothing to say about it. No one would validate that there were rumors. No one understood why I had to leave. No one said, “I understand, Kayla. You need to get better.”
It just shows the stigma with mental health.
Something must change….TODAY.
Let’s talk about shame. *awkward but necessary*
This Ted Talk deconstructs shame and how it is the driving force behind depression and mental health issues. Shame is the “swampland of the soul” and Brown says we need to put our galoshes on and walk into it. I don’t know about you, but walking into the swampland doesn’t sound fun or clean or like a good use of my time. However, I spend a lot of my time looking into the swampland wishing it didn’t exist. Like A LOT of time.
Brown points out the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt: I’m sorry, I made a mistake.
Shame: I’m sorry, I am a mistake.
I’ve spent a while marinating in this idea. Often, if we feel guilt and apologize, we feel better. However, shame is this whole other monster that is consuming and you can’t simply apologize for who you are. Brown talks about conquering shame with vulnerability and empathy.
So, I’m about to be vulnerable and hope you can be empathetic:
I’m entering the swampland of shame:
I was a fourth grade teacher and I had 30+ students in my class. I was also attending grad school and barely making ends meet in Oklahoma. My mental health took a backseat while I compared myself to every other teacher in the building. There were other teachers who were attending grad school and even had kids at home and I thought, “If they can do it, I should be able to do this.”
I spent long hours at work and at home working- grading papers, researching curriculum, spending my own money on my classroom and fun projects, spent hours communicating with parents (even talked on the phone with parents who needed help on homework at night), and spent nights trying to fall asleep worrying about my kiddos. However, students were failing. Therefore, I was failing as a teacher. There was pushback from parents saying that I didn’t care enough or do enough for their kids, but it was simply because I had too many kids in the class to pull through. So, something had to give. And what gave was my mental health. My thought continued to be: “Everyone else is doing it. Why can’t I?”
Brown talks about how shame makes you believe you’re not good enough and if you talk yourself out of that one, “who do you think you are?”
This was me. Pulling it together. Barely holding it together until I broke.
Something happened in my personal life and the shit hit the fan. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m having a mental breakdown. I’m having a mental breakdown.”
My best friend, Grace, was almost an hour away visiting her boyfriend and asked if I needed her to come home. I told her “yes.” When she arrived, I wasn’t myself and I told her I needed to go to the hospital. I wasn’t even crying. I was completely calm but not in my right mind.
She drove me to the hospital and I stayed overnight in the ER, then was taken to a mental health facility in a cop car almost an hour away. The cops said, “If you behave, we won’t have to put you in cuffs.”
At this point, I was crying, even sobbing thinking I’d made a horrible mistake. The hospital told me I was going to the facility to get an assessment and would probably be sent home. When I got there, Grace arrived in her own car and I was taken into a room with her. I could not control the crying. I kept thinking, “Abort! Abort! This is not what I signed up for.”
The woman in the facility who did all my paperwork told me I would be kept for a minimum of 120 hours. A MINIMUM of 120 hours. That’s five days. To say I was scared is an understatement. Grace, who had spent the entire night with me in the ER was still there. She saw my shade of white and she had to be the one to break it to my coworkers that I would not be into work (it was a Monday). I cried and cried and she hugged me and cried with me, then even brought me clothes from my home an hour away.
The five days in “treatment” was anything but life-changing (well, maybe life-changing in the way someone gets PTSD). We were told we needed to pray more and read the Bible more (this was not a religious facility), “group meetings” consisted of crossword puzzles and episodes of Andy Griffith, with a stout little man in suspenders who told you what your answer to his questions should be.
There was no growth. Only shame. Shame that I belonged with the guy that threw coffee on the nurse and called her a nasty name. Shame that I was abandoning my job and my coworkers knew where I was. Shame that I couldn’t tell my family. Shame that my mental health got the best of me. I felt ugly in a way I’ve never experienced- not because I only had shitty shampoo, no make-up, sweat pants with no drawstring, t-shirts and no hair ties- but ugly deep down inside. Like I was the worst person on the planet and unrecognizable even to myself. I spent nights crying myself to sleep in my bed, only to be awoken by a flashlight shining in my eyes because I couldn’t be trusted.
It was an all-time low. And I have to just say, these mental facilities need tons of work. Those nurses need tons of training. They need to realize that even professionals come in there to seek help and acceptance and don’t need to be treated like garbage. I was treated like garbage. I was told to quit being friendly to other patients. I was told that I shouldn’t be tired. I was told that if I could complete a crossword the fastest, then I was “mentally sound.” I was told that I wasn’t allowed to have a hardcover book or a tiny piece of paper with a friend’s phone number written down. I was told that if I loved God more, I wouldn’t be depressed. I was walked in and out of the cafeteria like an inmate with doors locking behind me.
But, there was Thaddeus. And this is where when Brown talks about empathy being the antidote to shame. He didn’t do anything crazy big, but he let me sit outside in the tiny courtyard even in the freezing cold- it felt good on my skin to feel the sun. He brought movies that I liked- movies with Seth Rogan and we would have nights in the lobby with coffee and lemonade and he would sneak us extra Oreos. I just have to say, this guy was the only person who treated us like actual humans. Mr. Andy Griffith and Mr. Crossword would’ve never let me pick out a movie or even express that I needed to go outside.
So, I guess the moral of the story is this: Ladies, don’t think you have to do it all perfectly without anyone seeing you sweat. Guys, you can be weak when you need to. Also, you should be a Grace or a Thaddeus. Let others be vulnerable, love them with all their shame, hug them close, bring extra cookies, and settle in for the ride.
If you asked a person who doesn’t suffer from generalized anxiety what makes them anxious, their response would probably be something like: stress at work, a big presentation, getting a speeding ticket, a tiff with a friend, deadline for a project, etc. Those are all real, tangible situations that would cause any person some anxiety.
However, sufferers of generalized anxiety disorder may not have an answer. At least not one that makes sense. I found this article (link above) that really hit home with me. It was about a woman who found herself in some difficult scenarios and she felt her anxiety dissipate. She found herself calm and at ease under extraordinary circumstances and when life was calm, the anxiety returned. I began to think about my life experiences that were horrific, but I was able to remain extremely calm. At my best friend’s funeral, I was able to stand up and give the eulogy without faltering. People were amazed.
What’s interesting is my calmness when the going gets tough, and the anxiety nearing a panic attack in every “normal” day. You know that feeling where you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t catch your breath because you remember you forgot to do something important? General anxiety disorder hits in the middle of the night the same way, but there is no important deadline you missed. You didn’t forget to buy a birthday present for your friend or forget to pay rent. You simply woke up and couldn’t catch your breath for a reason you’ll never know. Maybe you’re thinking about a situation you regret from years ago, a “what if” situation that could potentially happen, or imagining all the potential outcomes for anything you could potentially do or say in the future. None of it is real or is even affecting your present moment, but if you have experienced it, you know the physical repercussions are incredibly real.
It’s frustrating to hear from non-sufferers that “it’s all in your head” or “don’t be such a worry wart.”
Lately, though, there have been real reasons for my stress and I’m not coping in the way she does in the above article. My life is in complete shambles- relationships are suffering, I’ve given up my job, am experiencing health problems, my dog just got out of surgery, experiencing my first legal battle and financial problems. It seems every close friend is suffering too with their own battles. I’ve called my mom to cry and just feel validated, but I don’t know that there is any real answer to these troubles- and there is the guilt that I am causing others (like my mom) added stress. The anxiety I feel from these things aren’t actually the problems themselves, but the perception of them and the perception of my shaky future. I’ve always believed things will work out the way they should, but I must say, the last three months have caused me to question everything and everyone I encounter.
When I reflect on these problems, I can’t help but blame myself for all of them. However, a lot of the problems stem from depression and anxiety, but trying to untangle mental illness from a person is like untangling a rat’s nest of invisible wires. It’s impossible to know which wire belongs to the person and which belongs to the mental illness. The stigma works like an invisibility cloak. The stigma makes me want to hide it all and stuff it away (and Lord knows when you put your earphones in your pocket, they only become more entangled than before). I really want to separate my identity from my illness, but it’s nearly impossible.
I truly believe it will all work out. I will untangle these wires when I can stop hiding them so fiercely.
Today, I’ve spent some time thinking about how long I’ve had depression. Has it been ten years? Twenty?
Actually, when I think back, I can remember being this way as a small child. It’s what’s psychologists would call the “highly sensitive child.” I remember being really little when I realized I looked at the world differently than my own family. It was a strange realization. I remember feeling frustrated and lonely, but also like I had some gift. Like I could see emotions and experience compassion for every living thing around me.
Have you ever noticed that really incredible artists have severe depression or drug problems? Think of all the greatest musicians: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, etc… They all have/had these incredible artistic talents, and from the outside looking in, who wouldn’t want to be a rockstar? OK, so it’s an immense amount of pain and drug use, but who wouldn’t want a sea of people cheering just for you? Singing every word you wrote down on paper? Is the extreme pain these greats experienced worth the fame?
So I’m not some famous artist or writer, but I do know that depression can give us a kind of insight that others don’t have. As badly as it affects the day-to-day, it also makes us extremely empathetic and open to others. I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve. I do wear it and that’s one of the things I’ve hated for so long, but maybe with my heart hanging out there, it makes it less awkward for someone to confide in me. Maybe it means I can say or create something that makes others feel less alone.
I had a wake-up call this weekend. My best friend was laying in bed next to me and she was listening to a voicemail on speakerphone from her grandma. Her grandma says, “So I’m wondering about your friend, the one with all the problems…”
I can’t explain what I felt, but it was like I came out of my body and saw myself in the way I look to other people. I’m the one with all the problems. It was so ugly and raw and shocking, the feeling has ruminated all week. Am I too needy? Am I the friend with problems? Do I make it all about me? What problems really exist and what do I capitalize on to bring attention back to myself? Am I too self-centered? Even the thought of being self-centered feels self-centered.
Just to clarify, my best friend is extremely supportive. She has seen me at my absolute worst and continues to not only hang around, but listens to me and talks it out and jokes with me when it gets too heavy. She has been through the nitty gritty times where I sob about losing my music partner and lover again and again, taken me for help when I needed it, and been a shoulder to cry on. I would’ve dumped me already. But she’s consistently right there next to me, helping me cope and deal. I can’t explain a sisterhood like that.
I know my best friend didn’t say a single ill word about me to her grandma, but when I was referred to as “the friend with all the problems,” I wanted to sneak away and never ask for help again. How embarrassing to be known for that. Her grandma meant well too. She was just checking on me. However, it’s like I was on the outside looking into who I really was and it didn’t look pretty.
As that out of body experience has worn off a bit, I’m beginning to see that while I have an often troubled mind, I have a lot to give the world (like the artists listed above). Since there is so much going on in this head of mine, there is a lot going on in my heart. Because I take criticism and confrontation hard, I also love hard. Because I regret a lot, I forgive and empathize a lot. Because I feel more, I can give more.
Sometimes depression isn’t just a mental illness. Sometimes it isn’t just something that sucks the life out of you. Sometimes it is a weird gift.
And from the outside looking in today, I realize it’s all worth it.
When it comes to failure, I find myself excruciatingly tied to the idea that my measure of success is tied to what I do. Am I being a good enough friend? Is my dog happy? Am I pushing myself to be a better person? Am I educating myself? Am I spending too much time watching Netflix? Am I failing my diet? Failing my job?
I think there is such a huge gap between “doing my best” and real success. So, I’m left to question it all. Am I really failing or am I just not living up to other people’s expectations? I often compare myself- to other teachers, friends, grad students, and family members who seem to have it all together. Because I’m not doing and saying what they do, I find my self-worth dwindling and looking in the mirror to see a big, fat failure.
So, my message to myself and you today is SLOW DOWN. Did anyone get a degree in a day? Did anyone lose ten pounds in a week? Did anyone become the best version of themselves in a moment?
It’s about giving yourself grace and forgiveness. When the waves are slapping you in the face, you are fighting for your life and it takes a while to wade past the rolling tides. Once you wade out farther, and the white caps are behind you, you catch your breath, find an inner tube and some friends playing volleyball on the sand bar. It’s rough getting there and the fact you are fighting for your life is enough. You are doing enough- even if it’s just surviving for now.
Using all your energy to shower
A sink full of dishes
Making up excuses to stay home
Crawling in bed at 4:00 p.m.
Forgetting all your favorite things
Putting on make-up to cover puffy eyes
Being “overly sensitive”
Putting your phone on airplane mode
For three days
Being lonely while you isolate yourself
Crying for no reason
A messy house
Putting off responsibilities
Calling into work
The kind of tired sleep won’t fix
Fear of being alone with your thoughts
Negative thoughts on repeat
Cowering in the face of conflict
Wanting to fall asleep and never wake up
Not being able to go to the grocery store
Wishing you were someone else
Depression is an illness
If I could “will” myself out of it, I would
One load of laundry feels like climbing Mt. Everest
If I had a cold, they would bring me soup
If I had a broken arm, they would line up to sign my cast
The moment you say, “mental illness,”
The people get quiet,
Find the nearest exit.
There is no magic pill
There is no amount of therapy
There is no one thing I can do to be cured.
But with help and self-care,
Depression can be…
Knowing my limits
Friends becoming family
A disease instead of an identity
Acceptance of where I am
A purging of toxic relationships
Finding my tribe
A reason to love myself a little harder
To hold on a little longer
To breathe a little deeper
And to live in the moment
This moment right now.