By Miles, 23, Brooklyn, New York
Just over a year ago, after experiencing three months of the worst mental health of my life, I entered my current therapist’s office for the first time, sat down at her couch, and told her that I was sick.
Sick had become the word I was most comfortable using to describe my 4 year long battle with depression, anxiety, and a constant, throbbing, feeling of dread. (I usually describe the feeling of mental illness as the sensation your heart feels when you’re in class and realize you forgot your homework… but it’s all the time).
I was a senior in highschool when it started, college just around the corner. The combo of impending change, leaving home, and starting my “adult” life was enough to trigger some sort of chemical reaction in me that discolored the way that I saw myself and all the life I had ahead of me.
I had always been outgoing, and suddenly I just wanted to be alone.
I had always been a carefree and silly kid, and suddenly nothing was funny.
I had always been an attention seeker, a star of school plays, but suddenly I was throwing up before performances, public speaking, anything that required all eyes being on me.
I had always been just another guy, and now I was feeling things that it felt like no one around me could relate to.
My first reaction to all this change was that something was wrong with me. So my family, each with their fair share of mental health experience, did what any family would do and rushed me to the finest mental health practitioners they could find and afford. What came next would change the way I saw myself for the next five years. A diagnosis.
Whether it be Anxiety, Depression, OCD, Bipolar I, Bipolar II, etc... putting a name to whatever it is you’re going through can be an incredibly validating, informative, and helpful endeavor. In just my short, 23 year long lifetime, I’ve seen such humongous strides forward in the way that our society views these afflictions.
From celebrities' openness about suicidal ideation and even a fear of going on stage, to professional athletes copping to fear of playing in the big game, or experiencing a sense of depression and dread upon retiring, people are finally starting to see these experiences as an illness. And that’s fantastic. However, how does this perception affect us when we turn it onto ourselves and label ourselves ill?
When I told my therapist that I was sick, she looked at me like I was crazy. “What does that mean?”, she asked.
Now I had not been met with this question before, even by people far less knowledgeable in the world of mental health than a licensed therapist, so it took me a moment to even think of how to respond.
“I feel very sick. My mental health has never been worse, I'm exhausted by this constant battle I’m in against my illness, and even after years of trying, I still can’t seem to find the right medicinal cocktail to neutralize the chemical imbalance in my brain” (I’m always trying to impress therapists with my vocabulary, for some reason). I could tell this answer didn’t satisfy her. She’s the only therapist who ever voiced any dissatisfaction with a response to one of her questions.
“I understand you have been struggling with your thinking, and that you’re going through a hard time right now… but why does that make you sick”, she responded.
I had grown so fond of using that word, ‘sick’, to describe my mental health because it meant that my hardships with anxiety and depression weren’t my fault. If I was sick, then there’d be something to blame that wasn’t me. And if it was a sickness, then maybe that meant that there’d be a cure? Besides, whenever I was hurting most in my life, what would be the main thing that any loving friend or family member would say? It’s not your fault; it’s a disease.
I explained this to her, but really was saying most of it out loud for the very first time. Good therapists have a way of getting you to say words out loud for the first time that you’ve been living by for as long as you can remember. Her response, which was in the form of a question, can be marked as one of the most vital moments of my life.
She explained, “If you frame what’s going on in your head as a sickness, doesn’t that mean there’s nothing you can do to change it? That you have no control over your well being or your state of mind?”.
Thus began the hardest and most rewarding adventure of my life: taking ownership of my mental health. I started to learn that the overwhelming emotions I had been feeling for the past few years were a result of not just my life habits, but my thinking habits.
Our thoughts are our most frequent and powerful companion. Our thoughts are always there. And as we grow up, especially in a world as random, divisive, and over informed as the one we currently live in, it’s all too common and entirely understandable that they can form a habit of dwelling on what’s wrong and not what’s right.
We stare at the one pimple on our forehead, rather than the expanse of perfect skin surrounding it. We focus on the things we didn’t say or the things we shouldn’t have said, and not the things we said that day that genuinely made someone happy.
And after day after day of these negative thoughts piling up, unexpressed…
Of course we feel anxious,
Of course we feel depressed,
Of course we feel a lack of control.
And suddenly we identify so closely with these experiences that we begin to believe that they’re not just experiences, but identities. That they’re not what we’re feeling, but who we are.
I’m glad I was diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression all those years ago. I’m on medications that alleviates both, and I swear by them. I’d imagine anyone that has gone through similar experiences feels the same way.
But for the first time, after a year of beginning to unpack these labels I’ve been calling myself, I don’t feel anymore like ‘Miles With Anxiety’ or ‘Miles, The Depressed’ (a very bad superhero name), I feel like just another guy who struggles with his thinking from time to time; just like everyone else.
Miles – you are marvelous. Articulating your health journey is a gift to others who are also struggling. Keep on keeping on -let your light shine!