Have you ever held a lie that you thought was your one protection against the worst demons in your life? I have, and I told it everyday. That lie was that single most painful word I said when people asked me how I was—“good.” You may think the answer is normal under these kinds of scripted situations, but I felt guilty saying I was fine.
I could feel was how tightly my chest and stomach were wrung together.
My emotions started to get the best of me in seventh grade. I had just gone through a stressful period at school when I had trouble keeping my grades up, and stress also got to my mother after her divorce. The occasional fights with my mom had turned into me screaming into the pillow and crying silently for hours every night. My friendships took a toll when my usual laughter morphed into silence and tensed muscles because of my stress, which I had yet to discover was a mental illness. I felt anxious around people, even friends, without knowing why. Though my face was smiling and my voice was calm, I felt a prickly, nauseating knot in my stomach that made me want to flee as fast as possible.
And I never suspected I had a mental illness.
It was probably just a phase, right? The rollercoaster of my emotions only spiraled further downwards, until I became used to waking up with tears during a particularly stressful period in senior year of high school. Lasting sadness, chest pain, loss of concentration, exhaustion, stomach knots, avoidant behaviors—I should have realized sooner that these are typical mental illness symptoms of depression and social anxiety.
I was in the mental illness closet so deep that I didn’t even see the walls closing around me.
When college started, I decided to start with a clean slate. But unknowingly, I began to compensate for my depression and the loss of control by restricting my food intake and exercising religiously. My family didn’t have a history of neurosis, and surrounded by type-A students who fought for their career dreams by juggling maximum units and internships, I decided that mental illness treatment wouldn’t be worth my time; there were probably people who needed help more than I did. The result was the giant V shape that my weight took during my first two years of college; ultimately my will power to diet caved under the kind of anxiety that made me hide in the bathroom between classes, shaking with tears.
I became great at hiding my emotions. In the morning, I put on a poker face in front of the mirror–a smile I’d learn to wear automatically when I felt my fight-or-flight response activated. My night look was completed with seemingly relaxed body language and terse language so my friends wouldn’t hear the tiny breaks in my voice. Since no one had a solution to my depression and anxiety anyways, why bother telling them?
What inspired hope in me, though, was a bearded dude who died in 1910. In a communication studies class, I read about the famous philosopher psychologist William James and his “Will to Believe” doctrine. James, considered by many as the “father of American psychology,” had struggled through a low period of his life when he was so self-critical of his lack of achievements that he contemplated suicide. He attributed his whole successful career to a simple decision to believe in a better future. On my 20th birthday, I promised myself that I wanted positive change. The next day, I walked into the CAPS (counseling and psychological services) at my school and got referred to a CAPS clinician.
So treatment began. I’ll always remember the feeling of telling someone for the first time the difficult things I was going through and how they sometimes made focusing on school and committing to social events impossible. The clinician’s sympathetic eyes and the completely non-judgmental, scientific explanations she gave for my mental illness symptoms made me want to tear up, laugh and thank her at the same time. The fact that I was justified to feel down and tired was huge for me.
When I went home for break, I opened up to my mom. She hugged me when I was done, and to my surprise, I didn’t receive a lecture on how I could just breathe away my negative emotions. Once I was back at school and would call her to say that the initial side effects of my medication had subsided, she gave me a huge thumbs-up through the camera and a grin that didn’t go away for minutes. The way she celebrated my tiny achievement made me feel more cherished than ever.
Telling people about my mental illnesses wasn’t easy. Coming out of the mental illness close took a lot of hyperventilating in my head and staring at my fingers as I tried explain myself. And opening up to people who may have never experienced what you have can be even more difficult.
In the summer of freshman year, I tried telling a guy I’d been going out that I couldn’t commit to a serious relationship because my depression and disordered eating had serious physical effects on my body. He not only told me these things are just in my head (technically true), but that I should “let go of” and “forget about” my problems, which, in my opinion, is about the most offensive thing you can say to someone with mental illness. The good news? I got to slam the door in his face.
At the end of the day, speaking up about your mental illness isn’t about someone else or what they think of you. Coming out of the mental illness closet is about you accepting the fact that your mental conditions deserve care. I’m so grateful for the honest conversations I’ve been able to have with friends I’ve opened up to, but I’m still very cautious about picking out who to trust. If sharing doesn’t make me feel happier and more authentic, I’d never do it. When I do, I like to give myself a mental high-five for taking the step forward.