This week (or for as long as I have volunteers), I’m featuring a series of guest posts about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. My hope is to convey how many people face these challenges by providing a platform for others to share their stories. Today’s post is by Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, a researcher, teacher and PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. A transplanted Philadelphian, she researches women and religion, deeply misses proper coffee and can be reached on Twitter at @klndonnelly.
I looked at the clock blinking in the dark. 4:05 a.m. My roommate was asleep, had been for hours. Me? I couldn’t sleep. Wasn’t able to and hadn’t been able to for five days. I couldn’t shut my brain off, couldn’t stop the building fear that everything was going to fall apart that had no logical explanation behind it.
I had always been … shall we say, intense. Throughout childhood and adolescence, I had carried this need to keep busy, creating lengthy projects for myself like copying song lyrics into endless notebooks so that I would never have to be alone with my own thoughts. I feared falling asleep; those moments between the light going off and actually falling asleep were torture and a therapist had told me to start talking out loud to put myself to sleep. And that worked. Until I went to college and couldn’t talk. And the creeping fear of failure and panic that I couldn’t shake and hadn’t been able to shake, had only barely been able to keep at bay, erupted.
And I hadn’t slept for five days.
I laid awake analyzing every moment of the day, the week, the year, my life. I cried thinking of interactions I had had with people years previously, feeling shame at how I reacted or did not react. I convinced myself that no one would ever love me. I mean, how could they with all these apparent and concrete flaws? I berated myself for not being “enough:” not being disciplined enough, not being skinny enough, not being friendly enough. You name it, I felt it.
It was paralyzing.
I had contemplated suicide several times during my adolescence, actually creating a plan only once. I ended up confessing to my mother that I just wanted “the voices” to stop. Alarmed, she took me to a therapist who told her I was suffering adolescent angst and would grow out of it.
But the voices were really my voice. My own self-shaming voice which never shut up and by the time I hit day five of sleeplessness that October of freshman year, I knew I had to find a way to shut it up.
Once the dawn began creeping through the windows that final morning, I crept down to my resident director’s room, figuring that she could at least tell me what doctor to go to who could give me sleeping pills or something. I needed my brain to stop whirring and I needed to sleep. Through tears and hiccups, I told her a lot of what I just told you. She lovingly made me tea and let me sit in her living room until the local doctor’s office opened. She made an appointment for me that afternoon and drove me to it, telling me the whole time that I was brave.
I did not feel brave.
I felt broken.
I had been raised to be strong, you see. A true product of the Northeastern Corridor, I had absorbed the cultural message that strength meant never letting them see you cry.
That day was the start of a journey to understanding that as one of the most damaging lessons we ever learn.
The doctor in that sleepy Kentucky town was lovely. He listened and asked some gentle questions. At the end, he looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You have an anxiety disorder. Your brain doesn’t work properly and you’re actually unable to handle stress. This isn’t your fault and you’re not broken. You just need some medicine to help you. There is no shame in that. In fact, taking the pill is brave.”
That was 13 years ago this autumn. Since then, I’ve been on a fairly high dose of Zoloft every day. I’ve had a few foolhardy attempts at taking myself off of it. That didn’t go so well. It’s gone hand in hand with therapy at times, and that therapy has gone hand in hand with learning to let others into my pain. To learn to vocalize the fears instead of letting them fester, to learn to give myself grace and to extend it to others, to learn that tears can be holy and to learn that brokenness is usually the root of strength.
My mental health is in balance right now, but a tenuous balance at best. Keeping that balance is a daily struggle and will be forever, I have learned. I have coping mechanisms–podcasts have replaced talking myself to sleep, for instance–and the people I do life with know my journey because, honestly, the pill isn’t enough on its own. They know that I can’t always process stress well and that I tend to take personal interactions personally. Bless them, they put up with a lot. I hope I’m worth it.
Several years ago, I had a period of intense personal trauma and a friend took me out for coffee. As I poured out the eruption of anxiety in my head, she grabbed my hand as tears filled her eyes. “That’s a lot, darling. Be gentle with yourself as you wade through it. Be gentle.”
So that is my plea to you, reader. If some of my story rings true, be gentle with yourself. If none of it does, then I hope you will be gentle with yourself in whatever battle you’re fighting. Be gentle. Fighting for your health does not include beating yourself up. You do what you can each day and at the end of it, take a deep breath and realize that tomorrow is a new day where the battle may be easier. It may be harder, true. But the day after may be easier. And if you can find hope in that, then be gentle.
Would you be willing to share your experience with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or other mental-health illness? Email me at cjATcarlajeanwhitleyDOTcom. I’d love to share your experience as a guest post.