What was it like when you first started struggling with your mental health? What did that look like?
Mental illness has been a part of my life from a young age, although I didn’t realize it until nearly two decades had passed me by. As a child, I always silently carried the weight of anxiety on my back; mostly because I didn’t even know it existed. But as I recount my childhood memories, most of them come back to me with more than a hint of anxiety. Although I was quiet, and seemingly peaceful, my mind was always hyper-active. The voice in my head was constantly running through irrational scenarios, making me fear the ordinary. I was just a kid, but I was always filled with dread and distress, regardless of reality. I was living in a prison; one that had been created in my own mind. Years of not dealing with my anxiety and constantly pushing all of my emotions to the side eventually caught up to me. In late high school, life became more tough. The coping mechanisms I had always used as a kid were no longer working for me. I went from someone who was always stone-cold, to someone who would cry over nearly everything. I began to have more frequent, and more severe panic attacks. I would go weeks having multiple panic attacks in a day. My throat would close up and I would be sure that I was about to die every time it happened. And whenever I was not having a panic attack, I would be worried about the next time it would happen. I was not happy. But I never told a single person.
When did you realize you needed to get help and why did you take this step? If you never got help, why didn’t you? Was there a specific fear/reason? How did you get help or support? Did you find it helpful? What were the gaps you noticed, if any?
My anxiety worsened, and I finally decided to do some research. This is something I am eternally grateful for because it opened my eyes to the field of Psychology - which I quickly decided I wanted to study and pursue a career in. Although I was becoming quite educated in the field of mental illness, I was still reluctant to seek help for my own struggles. I still never told any friends or loved ones. I went to speak to a therapist once and quickly vowed I’d never do that again. The therapist’s stance felt pretty patronizing, and I feared that I was being judged. I turned to writing, which helped a lot, but I was still failing to deal with my issues directly. I developed unhealthy ways of dealing with life stressors, family tragedies, or any major changes. Last summer, after twenty years of neglecting myself, I finally snapped. What triggered this was watching a close friend have a sudden seizure. After seeing something so traumatic, everything that had been boiling within me finally came to the surface. I had a complete breakdown, and I was officially at the lowest point I had ever been. I was terrified of being alone, having continuous panic attacks, unable to eat or sleep, constantly trembling, and struggling to leave my house. I remember wanting to check myself into a hospital because I felt that I no longer had control over myself physically or emotionally. It now became obvious to my loved ones that I was struggling, so for the first time I finally did something that probably saved me. I spoke up. I shared what I was going through. And from that day forward, things began to improve.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from mental illness?
I’m grateful for how much I’ve grown and learned from my experiences - which I can now use to educate others. I’ve learned that you need to simply give your emotions space to exist. Let them be. After almost twenty years of burying my anxiety and hoping it would disappear, this is the most important lesson I’ve learned. If you don’t deal with your issues head on, they will worsen and they will demand attention. No matter how hard or scary it might seem, you must tackle your battles. I’ve learned that as humans, we’re much more resilient than we often give ourselves credit for. We’re all equipped with the tools we need to fight our demons, we just need to have the courage to access these tools.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Would there be any major changes you would have made in your life related to your mental health?
Speak. Up. You are not a burden and you do not need to go through this on your own. There are explanations for the emotions you are experiencing. Mental illness is very real and is in fact experienced by millions of people all over the world every day. It’s part of our human experience. Also, please know that mental illness is not something that you can simply shut off. It doesn’t just go away one day. It takes constant work, but you will be okay no matter what. These are really important things that I wish someone had told my younger self. To this day, not many people know that I struggle with mental illness daily. I have only recently become vocal, which has felt so cathartic. Speaking about my mental illness is truly liberating after so many years of unnecessary silence.
What’s the best way to improve your mental health or take care of it?
Mental health should be regarded on the same level as physical health. Our bodies and minds need to be maintained and taken care of properly. Even if you’re feeling great, you should make an effort to check in with yourself and ensure that everything is okay internally. Deal with all of your stressors, big or small, as soon as you’re aware of them - don’t let them build up. Also, do what feels right. Make decisions about eating, exercise, school, relationships, etc. based on what feels right for you and your body. Don’t put anything above yourself on your list of priorities.
How would you rate your mental illness right now out of 10?
You may not be able to physically see what a person is going through with mental illness, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Just be there for them in a non-judgemental way. You don’t need to say much if you can’t seem to find the right words. Just knowing that you have someone there you can talk to is already very healing. Remind them of how many people out there are in similar shoes. Urge them to speak to a therapist - and if they have a bad experience, try a new therapist. Tell them it will get better.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to support someone with a mental illness but doesn’t know how?
I’ve just published ‘Catharsis,’ a chapbook which includes various poems surrounding mental illness. I’ve also started a new job, in addition to a bunch of exciting projects and ventures to look forward to. With that being said, I would rate my mental health a 6 out of 10 right now. Like I said, it’s constantly a work in progress. Yesterday was a great day, and tomorrow might be even better. I don’t always have good days - and my anxiety is definitely here to stay - but I’m proud to say that I’m in control of it. I’ve now found a great therapist who I meet with regularly. I try to be very transparent with what I’m experiencing. After all these years, I’m finally not ashamed to share that I struggle with my mental health because I have realized it’s simply a part of being human. Having anxiety doesn't make me any less of a person. I can still be inspired, strong, and successful. I’m dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with mental illness by openly speaking about mine - and I urge anyone reading this to do the same.