For the most part, I keep this extremely private, very personal — it never enters my social media posts. But I have come to realize that it does more harm than good trying to cover up the serious health issues that set me apart from most 24-year-old women. The standards set by our social media avatars — brag-worthy Instagram photos, the ones that fit society’s specifications — leave no room for a discussion about serious ailments that many of us go through every day. I have struggled with mental health issues all my life, for the most part on my own and alone, buying into the stigma that surrounds these issues and keeping them secret.
The culture of attractiveness leaves no room for scars, no room for a few extra pounds, no room for deep insecurities. The aim is to see who can get the most likes, the most attention, and the most approval. I am just as guilty of indulging in this dangerous culture as anybody else. I pick profile pictures in which I look the happiest, photos that scream “look what I am doing and how cool it is.” But they tell you almost nothing real about a person: except maybe what she had for lunch.
Of the mild depression and obsessions I’ve had since childhood, panic attacks have been the worst. Once, in middle school, I was supposed to help clean our house, but I couldn’t handle the thought of it, the overwhelming pressure … I could barely handle breathing. Scared, convulsing, crying, screaming … I had no idea what was wrong with me. Confused and alone, I attempted to kill myself in the midst of my panic. Fortunately for me, all I could find were 10 Tylenol pills. My brothers found me in the closet crying and teased me to no end for attempting suicide with Tylenol.
So many people aim to be that pretty girl with the world travels and luxe closet. The likes that pour in from posed photos — I’m holding a flower and pretending to giggle — temporarily make me feel better, forget that I feel ugly, or fat, or frustrated, or dirt poor. If my boyfriend and I get into a huge fight, an Instagram of us looks happy; no one knows the better. The posts mean I’m winning. Even when I’m losing.
After my dad passed when I was 16, I spent my nights crying, angry at absolutely everything. Mourning that I would never see him again. I was in a dark place. A sophomore in high school, I decided to cut myself. If I were better, prettier, more athletic, smarter, I thought, my dad would have stayed. When my friend told me the guy she liked actually liked me, I got so mad I took a razor to my leg and slashed it up. My teenage self carved H A T E there and never told anyone.
I finally made it to college, and I had never felt so small, scared, and anxious in my life. I was obsessed with an idea of what college should be like, and I was convinced I didn’t have it. So I said yes to everything. The more I drank, the more people liked me; it was easier for me to talk to people, and my anxiety would temporarily subside. Social media provided an outlet, but it was a double-edged sword. While it displayed the happiest parts of my life, it also convinced me that they couldn’t compare to my peers’.
I ended up making a great group of girlfriends, but I had to do more. I had to drink more. My behavior was erratic. But on the outside, I was a good time.
I broke down and finally decided to go to therapy after my kid brother got a DUI and destroyed my car. I was so grateful he was okay, but it was all too much for me. Through counseling at UCSB’s Psychological Health Services, I learned I had a mild form of clinical depression. Several appointments kept and missed later, I chose not to take anti-depressants and never went back. A huge part of the reason, I realize now, was a stigma against pills. I couldn’t accept that some illnesses of the brain need to be treated with not just therapy but also medicine.
Thirteen months ago, I decided to return to therapy. It was extremely helpful, but my doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, which I put off for about four months. Initially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and put on Zoloft, I was better for a bit before I once again became overwhelmed, stressed, and even more anxious.
After a particularly intense panic attack and after I had explained what I had been going through in the past several months, my doctor thought I showed signs of bi-polar disorder. This truly came as a shock. I knew there was something stronger than my will and deeper than my consciousness driving certain actions. I knew I had hurt others as well as my reputation in the process. But I never expected this. I was terrified.
My doctor put me on the mood stabilizer Lamictal, but first, I went home and cleaned the kitchen, organized, turned tables over, reorganized … I never stopped. In a state of disbelief, I picked up my pills the next day. And then I cried. I took my first Lamictal several weeks ago, I’m still on Zoloft, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt more like myself in my life. I have never felt more capable, motivated, or clear-headed. I still have a long way to go, but as they say, it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.
I first wrote this story as a post on my blog about a year ago, and my relatives and friends sent an outpouring of support and gratitude that inspired me. I want to give others a peek into just how many experiences lie behind every single person, and I want to help dispel the stigma that comes with mental illness. I want to help people feel safe to discuss their issues and get the help and support that they need, want, and deserve. I hope that you can identify and relate with some of my issues and experiences. Or even if you can’t, I hope you pass the message along that mental disorders are nothing to be ashamed about.