The ‘Herstory: She Can’ series profiles women I encounter along my travels, sharing the story of her own odyssey.
One day, I called into work, and stayed out for three months.
I had fallen on the sidewalk outside my house, scraped up my lip, and chipped my front teeth. The injury was easily fixed, but it took a physical manifestation of the way I felt inside before I was willing to get the help I needed. Depression and anxiety run in my family. I experienced my first panic attack at 21. There were signs before that dating back to childhood, but I always told myself it was just me: dark, moody, timid, but funny at the same time. I needed a good sense of humor to make up for the rest of my botched personality. A little Wednesday Addams. Other people have described me as sad, serious, strange. Because of the faulty wiring in my brain, I let them tell me who I was. Without understanding what was happening, I let my illness become my identity.
When the panic attacks started, I had just returned from a year studying in the UK. All of my major plans surrounded that year abroad, and I did not know what to do next. Lost and afraid of the future, the mental health issues that had been lurking in the background came roaring to the front of my consciousness and took me hostage.
Thus began a series of medications and therapies that would continue for more than eight years. It’s a fact that I need pills to function, and I only recently stopped beating myself up for it. Therapists come and go, overall more helpful than not, but not one of them can do what I can: give myself permission to get better.
After college, I made a rewarding but underpaid foray into the non-profit arts community, when I got an offer from a bank with health benefits that I badly needed. I remained stuck in the same dissatisfying job for almost six years, filled with self-loathing and self-doubt. I dragged myself through work, friendships, several relationships, all the while believing myself to not be good enough. I was lucky in some ways; I managed to stay employed, busy and social. There were some wonderful moments. I made new friends and grew as a person, but I did all of that while fighting a numbing despair that threatened to overtake everything.
So here I am at the end of my twenties, trying to undo the genetic, environmental, and self-inflicted damage from the past two decades. At the beginning of July, I took leave from work to get full-time outpatient treatment. For three hours, three days a week, I sit in a room full of other tired, unhappy people and learn basic coping skills, like breathing (have you tried breathing? It’s not so bad), identifying and dismissing the lies our brains tell us, and putting aside unhealthy crutches. I’m learning to say who I am rather than let others tell me. When I separate my depression from my personality and treat it like an illness, my other qualities come through more clearly. I am compassionate, I am empathetic, I am assertive, I am mischievous, satirical, sad, happy, angry, mostly good things.
I think I am getting better. I feel better. I believe I can shed my past like a skin that no longer fits. I will give myself permission to be different, while recognizing that what I already am is not bad. I read a funny quote that says “you have fingernails, but you are not fingernails.” I have depression and anxiety, it has shaped who I am, but it is not who I am or who I will be.