my road to happiness

i’m happy that more light is being shed on mental illness these days. reading stories about others’ experiences has certainly helped me, and i feel the need to try and pay it forward in case my story can benefit someone else. so. here goes.

i’ve been depressed on and off for most of my life (definitely as early as age 12, likely even earlier than that), but it was only this year i decided to do something about it. it’s unclear whether it was obvious to my friends or not, but i tend to have a pretty cheerful demeanor, so i wouldn’t be surprised if they were surprised to learn that i constantly felt suffocated by life. the danger in being high-functioning while being depressed is that everyone kinda just assumes you’re happy and your life is wonderful, which makes it really, really difficult to admit you’ve been lying by omission this whole time to people who trust and love you.

and so i went on for years without really talking to anyone about it but my partner throughout our decade-long relationship. he did his best to persuade me to deal with my ongoing battle with my mind, but i was resistant and ashamed and felt guilty reaching out for help from both friends and professionals. eventually, though, i decided at the end of 2015 that i couldn’t ignore my well-being any longer and figured i’d start by eliminating my biggest stressor at the time — my job.

i’m super grateful that my boss at the time was a doctor who was super understanding and just got it without much explaining when i told him i needed to quit. he was so understanding, in fact, that he told me to take as much time as i needed to in order to get better, that i could return to work whenever i was ready, and that i had his support both as a friend and as a colleague. it meant a lot to me and still does. i have no idea what he ended up telling our close-knit team of ~8 about my absence, but nearly each of them contacted me during my time off to individually offer support and friendly words of encouragement, and i was extremely touched that they cared enough to reach out. (btw, if any of you medisas folk are reading this… thank you. ❤) when you’ve believed for the longest time that you could disappear without anyone noticing or caring, any piece of contrary evidence, no matter how small, makes a difference.

so with all the usual weapons we use against depression — meditation, exercise, expressing gratitude, journaling, meds, counseling, reading about and practicing ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) — i started to feel genuinely happy again: the fog had cleared, and i was excited to wake up and experience each day. but the biggest relief was being able to talk about it. for someone who values authenticity as much as i do, i felt a million times lighter now that i was being more honest with myself and the people around me.

fast forward nearly a year, and i still continue to wake up happy most days. last week, i was plagued by suicidal thoughts/fantasies for the first time since january. the rational part of me was confused. i was happy. i was enjoying life. i may have been stressed by work and by the guy i was dating, but that didn’t mean i wanted to end my life. it didn’t make any sense and it really disturbed me.

people have told me that mental illness is just as real as any other illness; you would never treat a diabetic with prayer alone (at least, you wouldn’t if you wanted the patient to live), and you wouldn’t tell someone who’s depressed that they can just will their brain chemistry into balance. it’s amazing the difference i feel when i’m off versus on my meds. and last week was a good reminder that my brain/body wanting to self-destruct is definitely a real illness i can’t entirely control on my own, even when i am on my meds, and even when life is going swimmingly.

i’m continuing to learn more and more about ways to cope and am becoming more and more comfortable giving my friends and colleagues a heads up when i’m having one of those shitty days. most people (the ones worth keeping around) are understanding, supportive, and forgiving.

i’ve realized that many of my defense mechanisms and my drive to soothe others’ feelings before my own stem from growing up in a household where expressing your feelings was unacceptable, where love was not dispensed unconditionally, and where being honest led to punishment and guilt. (also, i don’t mean to make it sound like i have an awful family — i wholeheartedly believe they did the best they could, that they only wanted me to be successful and financially stable as an adult, and that they loved me the way they knew how.) as a result, i tend to open up at a snail’s pace with most people, i have a hard time relying on and trusting others, and i recoil whenever i sense i’ve caused irritation or discomfort in other people (and constantly monitoring and reacting to others’ moods/feelings is incredibly exhausting and draining). i used to (and still kinda do) joke about being a robot without feelings, but really, i was/am just excellent at hiding and repressing them. not exactly something you want to win a medal for.

the good news is that i’m working on it and am pleased with the results so far. i’ve expressed to 7ish people this year how much they mean to me or how much i like spending time with them (which i’d always avoided in the past for fear of rejection or abandonment or awkwardness or whatever), and nearly all of them have responded warmly. i’ve embraced the pain that accompanies a breakup, and i’ve bounced back quicker than ever. when i’m sad, i allow myself to feel sad, and i’m back up and running in no time doing the things i want to do in life, rather than letting my sadness disable me. i know now that fully experiencing my feelings today is an investment in my well-being tomorrow.

so to those of you who have been on the fence about getting help, i can’t emphasize how much i encourage you to just do it already. talk to your friends. talk to your doctor. see a therapist. or at least read some books. know that you’re not alone and that there are people out there who genuinely want to help you feel like the world is better off with you in it. ❤

and if you don’t know where to start, here are some books that have helped me (starting with the most useful one):