I am through and through the most introverted person I know - always have been and always will be. I don't say that I am to be trendy or to fit into a funky crowd, as that's what people seem to think about when anyone admits to being an introvert. I am not as articulate in person as I am in writing, and I am definitely not the person to talk to if you want to carry on a conversation with small talk. I am a deep thinker, and I feel like the most unfortunate (yet fortunate) thing about being someone who is constantly in their head is that I have TOO MANY thoughts and TOO MANY pent-up emotions that I deal with on a daily basis with no true outlet to expel my thoughts and feelings. At the same time, having so many thoughts and emotions help me to think more deeply about myself and about life as a whole. I do deal with fear and anxiety more than I like to admit and It manifests in different ways with varying levels of intensity, but overall, the most important thing through it all, is that I am always able to overcome it. I undoubtedly believe that anxiety has just as much to do with mental health as depression does to mental illness. More often than not, both go hand-in-hand. To me, anxiety is not just a disorder, but a true testament to the condition of the human heart.
Anxiety, fear, me.
I am very happy to know that the issue of mental health is being taken more seriously and is brought to light more and more through television, music, and social media. Perhaps it's just me, but for the longest time it seemed like the issue of mental health has always been a taboo and/or disregarded subject, and I am definitely guilty of writing off anxiety as laughable or that depression is just a means for someone to seek attention. Honestly, I have never been more wrong and sincerely reflect on my gross misconception of what constitutes mental illness. I was never one to think that I would ever suffer from a mental health issue, but thinking more deeply about it, I think I have always been suffering. Growing up, my brother and I had always been exposed to various stressful situations in which no kid should ever have to be exposed. We were always seeing our parents struggle with money; always watching as they tried to keep their grocery/restaurant business afloat; always watching as they argued heavily every day with each other; always worrying about whether they'd end up getting a divorce; always just...struggling. So, I feel like we were taught at such a young age to be anxious and to fear something in some way. It was never talked about, never given a second thought - basically suppressed. Because to say anything was to admit that life was too hard, and I wanted to believe that my life was normal. To an extent, I truly believed that any turbulent, panic-ridden occurrences I may have suffered throughout my growing years was just a normal part of life, and I dealt with it by not letting myself feel anything. My anxiety and fear was an unrealized revelation that profoundly shaped my personality, my relationships, and my life.
Ashamed — I'm alone, no you're not.
It wasn't until I got my first real baking job in Seattle that I started to actually experience panic attacks and severe mood swings. My husband can attest to several occasions where I came home from work crying hysterically, or him waking up in a groggy haze at 4 AM to find me sobbing loudly in the dark before I headed out to work. The stress of moving to a new, unfamiliar city, working early hours in a high-stress bakery for the first time, and not being able to connect with a community had truly gotten to me. No matter how much I think about my life pre-Seattle, I don't think I've ever felt so defeated and lost in my life. Everything seemed so easy in our Arizona days. My mental state was becoming more and more apparent to me, but there was a huge part of me that began to feel ashamed of the way I was feeling. I can count on two hands how many times my husband had to unsuccessfully coax me into talking about my feelings, but the reality of it was that I was too tired, depressed, and ashamed to talk about any part of me. I didn't know what was wrong with me, and while I had subconsciously begun to make small strides in realizing that my mental health was being compromised, I continued to suppress my feelings.
Being in a completely different season of my life right now, I will confess that I have been facing a whole new level of anxiety and fear. Again, my husband can attest to multiple instances where I laid in bed silently crying to myself, unable to express anything but giving up. YES, giving up. I felt like I had failed in my career, failed in our marriage, failed as a friend, failed as a person, failed myself. There's nothing more heart wrenching than coming face to face with yourself and realizing...feeling that maybe no one really supports or believes in you. You start to truly give into the lies and before you know it, you're too far gone in your thoughts that you lose yourself and your sense of purpose. I can confidently say that with a lot of prayer and scripture, I'm no longer in that state of mind, but I still do wrestle with myself and wrestle with God. It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you're alone in this world and that no one really recognizes the silent desperation hidden behind a forced smile. There's only so much a single person can handle. Retrospectively, I truly believe that God ABSOLUTELY can and will give us MORE than we can handle, but will also guide us through our trials in more ways than we could ever imagine. The greatest revelation is knowing that we're never alone in our fears, our depression, our anxiety. None of those things will ever define us.
“You shouldn't let ____ make you feel this way...”
I can't say that my realization of my mental state has helped me maintain healthy relationships with friends and acquaintances alike. I didn't start out with many friends to begin with, but l can kind of understand why many of my friendships with people didn't last. Opening up about my feelings was never an easy thing, especially because being vulnerable was introduced to me much later when I went to college and found a solid church community. Who I actually was on the inside was so new to me. I mean, who wants to admit that they may or may not be depressed? Especially someone with as much pride as me? I'd say my biggest fault is that I am too self-aware, and quite frankly didn't want to come off as a drama-queen by unloading my burdens on to people who had problems of their own. Other times, and probably the most common reason for my unwillingness to open up, was the growing realization and anticipation of being told how I should feel about my situation(s). If there's one thing I've come to understand, is that no one should tell you how to feel about ANYTHING. The way I feel about certain things is the way I feel -- especially when it comes to my own emotions. There should never be an instance of someone shaming you for "feeling" and then try to correct you into the “right” way to feel according to their standards. At that point, it becomes purely a projection of how that other individual is feeling about themselves. As if being ashamed of one's mental capacity isn't enough, having someone shame you for feeling a certain way is a stab in the gut. It's human to feel whatever it is your emotions lead you to feel. Ignoring it is one thing, but having someone force your feelings is a complete violation of the human condition.
Misunderstandings, not bad attitudes
There are healthier ways to guide someone out of negative thoughts and emotions, and there are absolutely more positive ways to approach someone who may be suffering from depression and other mental health issues. I am no stranger to backing out of a relationship with someone because I couldn't understand their mental state. I've been that unreasonable person, but I've also been the person that has had people misunderstand me because I wasn't ready to open up about my anxiety or depression. Unfortunately, it didn't (still kinda doesn't) help me feel any less shame in my anxiety and fear because, a lot of the time, people mistake my unwillingness to share as having a bad attitude. The choice of an individual to stay silent about their struggles is that individual’s choice - they're just not ready. Forcing someone to spill their guts and then slapping a label on their struggle to do so (like expecting them to sign some sort of relational “terms and conditions” agreement without reading it) does not really make anyone feel better about opening up about their mental state. Just as my husband or my best friend takes the time to listen to me before passing judgment on the condition of my heart, I too can listen first before branding my relation to someone as conditional or unconditional. With any two or three or four people, maintaining relationships means having patience. Maintaining relationships with others that are battling with themselves means showing compassion and meeting them where they're at unconditionally. You'll never truly know how impacted one can be by only sitting and listening; you need to go through trials yourself.
"Occasionally, weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. TRUST GOD. And embrace the life you have." - John Piper
When I was going through my toughest periods of anxiety, the most lasting advice I've ever received was from my husband. He told me to feel what I needed to feel in the moment - all the pain, sadness, frustration, anger - and then move on and overcome. He has no idea how much I apply that to my life to this very day. I have had a year filled with a lot of risk and uncertainty. A year filled with tears and frustration. A year of heartbreak and shame. A year of realization and complete acceptance of who and where I am today. I've been more vulnerable this year than I've ever been in my entire life, and while I still find it hard to admit that I am "suffering," I trust that God has given me a life of learning and possibility. I am in no way perfect, and I know something stressful will happen and I'll fall back to my old ways, but I feel less shame in admitting that sometimes I just won't feel okay immediately. And that's totally okay.
I truly believe that it's important to address the struggles brought on by any sort of mental health disorder and not brush it under the rug as if it's a non-issue. People deal with stress, anxiety, depression in completely different ways, but that doesn't mean one person is being more or less dramatic than others when they are admitting to feeling like their world is crumbling around them. Some people are able to have a completely positive outlook on life through their struggles, but for others, it's not as easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In such cases, I feel it's important to listen and understand each others’ perspectives. What makes sense to you may not make sense to someone who may be chronically depressed, and someone with anxiety may experience it differently than someone who knows how to handle their distress. Healing takes time, but it's ultimately up to the individual to choose to be okay despite the struggle. It also goes without saying that it's up to friends, family, peers, community, to understand that everyone needs support and love no matter how severe someone’s mental state has manifested. No one can endure life alone.
Overcome, not just get over...
I don't mean to write this post to be dramatic, but one hundred percent of what I have written is ALWAYS on my heart. I think deeply about my own struggles and how it changes me as a person. I think deeply about the millions, billions of people who feel like there's no end to their struggles, no matter how small their struggles may be. I am reminded that I am and never will be alone in my grief - not only because I know I'm one of the billions of people with varying struggles, but because I know a Savior that undoubtedly carries me. Tim Keller puts it this way,
"...in Christ, it is literally true that the person we adore most in the universe adores us. In the eyes of God, in the opinion of the only one in the universe whose opinion ultimately counts, we are more valuable than all the jewels that lie beneath the earth.
Everyone has their own saving graces, and I completely understand that many do not believe what I believe and that's OKAY. But my faith in Christ is a huge part of who I am. I am comforted knowing that I have a God who guides every movement of life. I am comforted knowing that I can overcome the trials I face because my life was deemed worth laying down His own.
I will always struggle. But, I will always overcome. My fears and anxieties do not define me, they don't define my relationships, and they don't define the rest of my life. At the end of the day, it's about how I will choose to handle my situation. If there’s one thing I can say to encourage anyone who is struggling with depression or anxiety is that there is no shame in the way you feel. Sometimes, you won’t be okay, and that’s completely okay. But, through it all, I pray you choose to be okay in the end.
"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well" - Psalm 139.14