Recently, I was browsing Buzzfeed and I saw the article “14 Pictures That Capture What Anxiety Actually Looks Like” and something really struck me. Within the past couple of years I was diagnosed with High Functioning Anxiety and Depression, and from the outside looking in you would have absolutely no idea. To an outsider I’m happy, I’m upbeat, sometimes unusually perky, ambitious, goal oriented, and a completely thriving human being. But, the truth is most days I struggle severely with the simplest of tasks.
High Functioning Anxiety coupled with depression can be a little difficult to manage. And, when it first began to really rear it’s ugly head I didn’t completely understand what was going on. Prior to it’s onset I was a relatively happy person, played sports, had a lot of friends, but something felt a little off. I didn’t really feel like myself. I felt like someone else, a completely different person that was living inside my body, living my life but not actually experiencing it. When this all started happening I was in high school, and depression wasn’t really something that people talked about.
When I graduated and went off to college things started to get worse. Social situations would absolutely exhaust me. I could still fake it, still plaster a smile on my face and pretend like everything was okay, but it took the effort of running a marathon. At the end of a party or when I was done hanging out with a large group I would feel so drained, the kind of exhaustion that you could actually feel in your bones. My whole body felt heavy, empty… like there wasn’t actually a person living inside of it.
I went through years feeling like I was completely separate from myself. I just went through the motions of participating in my life. I left college, got a new job in corporate America, a job where I was absolutely thriving. As far as anyone knew, everything was going absolutely great.
It wasn’t until I was sitting with a co-worker, talking about how I thought I had depression that I really realized how bad things had gotten. Like I said previously, I had gotten very good at faking it. I could fool just about everyone, including myself, to the point where I thought I was okay. But, the problem was that when I went home at night, when I laid down and turned on my TV I just forgot how to feel. It was the times that I was by myself that it was the worst because I wasn’t trying to focus my energy so hard on pretending. The co-worker that I was talking to is someone who very openly had battled mental illness and I knew that I could confide in her.
That was my first recommendation to see a mental health professional. I was kind of taken aback, I won’t lie. I had almost expected her to say that I was imagining things. That the feeling of complete emptiness, the feeling of stress combined with isolation combined with nothingness combined with feeling everything and nothing all at the same time was a figment of my imagination. I expected her to tell me that it was normal, that her experiences with depression and mental illness was different. That I was okay. So, I was very surprised when she told me that she understood the way I was feeling because she often felt that way too.
A few weeks later, I saw my first therapist. I was so nervous. I mean, we’ve all seen the movies. You walk into a room filled with comfy chairs and chaise lounges. You sit on a couch and just bitch for an hour, and then when it’s all over you’re a couple hundred dollars poorer and the therapist is just shaking their head as you walk out the door because they know it’s all bullshit.
I was surprised when I walked in the room and found that it was just a normal office, the only difference was there was a couch and the walls were decorated nicer than most other offices I’d ever been in. Oh, and tissues. Lots and lots of tissues. The therapist was this little woman who was in her mid to late 50’s (if I could take a guess) and she reminded me of my best friend’s mom. We sat down and she just started asking questions and we started a dialogue. I think the thing that surprised me the most is that the words “and how did that make you feel” never once came out of her mouth. It was just two people, talking.
I left feeling confused. It wasn’t anything like I had suspected but she had recommended I come see her at least twice a week (that should have been a big indicator to me that I wasn’t actually okay). I walked away feeling hopeful that maybe I wasn’t as messed up as I had feared and I set up my next appointment with her secretary for a few days after.
The sessions progressively started getting more and more intense. The questions harder to answer without dissolving into tears. We tried different therapies at her recommendation, one which included turning on a calming music while blindfolded and clicking these clappers together to the rhythm and only focusing on that while I just talked. Completely just babbled without inhibition or fear of being judged. At first it was strange but after the first five minutes I forgot anyone else was even in the room. I was able to say things out loud that I had never voiced.
That was the session that led to my diagnosis. Eventually, after working with both my therapist and primary care physician I was prescribed a series of medications to help combat the side effects of my illness. We had to play around with my dosing and the different combinations that I was using, which really messed with me. No matter how many things we tried I couldn’t figure out how to not feel like a zombie. How to still feel alert and not feel like I was looking at the world through a haze filled lens.
The medications made me feel so unlike myself. I was no longer able to even pretend that I was a vibrant person and everything about me became muted. I gained weight… a lot of weight. Which affected the way I began to view myself, which just led to me getting even more depressed and heightened the anxiety that I felt in social situations. I felt like my soul was living completely separate from my body.
And, what was even worse than the medications was being trapped without them. After they got in my system if I didn’t take them I actually couldn’t get out of bed. I would just lay there, in the dark. No stimulus whatsoever. No TV, no music, my phone turned off. Just laying there, staring at the wall… feeling nothing.
I finally reached my breaking point and started to dial back the medications with the help of my physician until I could go off them completely. I couldn’t live like that any longer. I would much rather battle my depression naturally than to continue to feel like a shell.
At the recommendation from my therapist, after I got out from under the umbrella of numbness that my medication had caused, I started running again. That was something I had always loved but that my illness had stopped me from doing. It was hard at first. I couldn’t actually get through a mile, but the more I did it the better I felt. I started painting again, and sketching. Giving the numbness a physical form helped purge it from my body. I started writing again. Small things at first. Open letters about the events that put me in this place, poems, nothing long. Nothing with substance. But, slowly they grew. I began to get little snippets of myself back, slowly but surely.
Over the course of the past few years I’ve battled pretty heavily with my mental illness. There’s such a stigma attached to it that it can be nerve wracking admitting to the issues that I face on a daily basis. And, I know that the way that I’ve dealt with things don’t necessarily work for everyone.
Some people need the medication and do fine when they’re on it. Some need outside stimulus. I just happen to do better when I’m able to withdrawal for a little while and do something to give my illness and the symptoms I’m experiencing at that moment form. The thing about this disease is that if affects everyone differently.
Anxiety and depression are not the same for all of us and manifests differently for every single person that it affects. For me, it’s silent panic attacks. Fighting down the feeling of nervousness, sweaty palms, and feeling like something so heavy is sitting on my chest that I can’t breathe. It’s choking on my words because what I’m about to say will surely not be good enough. It’s standing in a crowded room and not being able to connect with a single thing or person in it. For others, it can be the complete opposite.
I still fight on a daily basis to keep my head above water. Through trial and error I’ve been able to identify my “tells”. The signs that pop up when I know something is about to trigger my anxiety or feel myself slipping down into the numbness and isolation that is my depression. I’ve figured out how to try as best I can to combat it and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to continue to move forward.
The one thing I’ve learned is that when someone opens up to you about battling mental illness, listen. Don’t discount what they’re feeling. Understand that the illness, the disease, that they face is just as life threatening, just as debilitating as any physical illness. And phrases like “just get up”, “it can’t be that bad”, and “just calm down” are the least helpful things in the world. If someone is facing an anxiety attack or are caught up in the throws of a depressive episode help them let it run it’s course. Help them identify ways to help themselves.
Listen. Learn. Love. Accept.
Those are the only things that will ever help anyone who is battling a mental illness. Don’t try to define it. Don’t try to change it…. Just accept it. And love them through it.