I walk through those sliding doors into the ridiculously bright, cold building. Phones buzzing, registers beeping, babies crying, mothers speed-walking like it’s the last hour they have on earth, and all I can do is take a deep breath. I walk around, passing the milk and eggs that I need at least four times trying to avoid the employee who is stocking shelves. I’m not trying to deride the grocery store or anything. I’m trying to explain the feeling of social anxiety. Imagine the overwhelming feeling that you get when you give a speech to an audience or try something new for the first time, that is what someone with social anxiety feels like everytime they are forced to go to a public place. Arguably the worst place to be for someone with social anxiety is the grocery store in a small town.
As a child, my parents and family would describe me as “shy” or “quiet.” I look back at these descriptions now and realize that I’ve always had anxiety, it just became more severe later in my life. When I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression (the two illnesses go hand-in-hand), I was scared, scared of the stigma behind the words “mental illness.” You hear about it in movies and during school assemblies, but we’re never truly taught how to recognize signs and identify mental illnesses. While focusing on suicide prevention is good, we should start getting to the root of the problem by spreading mental health awareness.
If I don’t wear all black clothing and listen to metal music in the dark, I’m not depressed, right? The wardrobe you choose and the music you listen to simply has little to no correlation to your mental stability. Staying to yourself and not going out to parties, doesn’t mean you have severe anxiety. Collectively as a society, we need to stop assuming the people that fall into those stereotypes are mentally unstable because this only adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness.
So, what does depression look and feel like? I remember being so depressed when I was thirteen years old that I couldn’t get out of my bed. I felt like there was no reason for me to leave the comfort of my room. Dirty laundry piled up in my room, breakfast turned into two graham crackers, and sleeping was my escape from reality. The reality was that I was struggling and I didn’t know how to stop. “Doesn’t there have to be a reason for you to be so sad?” my friends would ask when I didn’t want to have sleepovers like a “normal” thirteen year old. There must be something horribly wrong in my life to make me feel so incredibly sad. There wasn’t. The thing about depression is that it doesn’t need a reason to show up and wreck your life; it just does. The longer this went on, the easier it was for my family to pick up on the signs and get me help. No, I wasn’t admitted to a psych ward. I started to see a therapist.
In movies, you see the stereotypical scene of sad people laying on couches in an office staring up at the ceiling and spilling their life story to a little old woman in a chair taking notes saying, “And how did that make you feel?” That’s not the case. I showed up to my first session, mortified, with this movie scenario in mind. My palms were clammy and I could barely breathe. I walked into the room with my new therapist that embodied an oddly calm face. I sat down on the soft fleece couch and could do nothing but focus on the colored beads dangling from the bracelet around my wrist. At some points, my social anxiety would take over and making eye contact while talking seemed too overwhelming. It didn’t seem to bother her when I didn’t look at her directly which made me relax a bit. This woman had a special way of talking and saying all the right words; I suppose that’s why she got a degree in psychology. I spent an hour in her office talking and crying and laughing and crying some more. In this little session, not only did I learn ways to cope, I also became more aware of myself and my situation. I was proud of myself but I was also extremely exhausted. You don’t realize how draining it is for your mind to talk about everything that overwhelms you, until you do it.
I did not walk out of that room with all of my problems solved, but that’s okay. It takes more than one session to learn how to manage a mental illness and become comfortable enough to talk to someone in depth about it. Since that day, I have been seeing the same therapist for four years. Over the years, psychotherapy has guided me through my depression and anxiety and has helped daily life become much less intimidating. Also, to be clear, psychotherapy does not mean (the patients are psychopaths. By definition, psychotherapy is a range of treatments that can help with mental health problems and emotional challenges, but to me, it has been a saving grace.
My life story and experiences used to embarrass me to no end. I would lie and say my therapy appointments were dermatology appointments when my friends asked where I was going because I assumed that would be easier for them to understand. I also never wanted people to worry about me or treat me differently because of my struggles with anxiety and depression. However, thanks to therapy, I’ve realized that it’s okay for your friends to worry about your wellbeing and check in on how you’re doing. I’ve learned throughout my life that the people that don’t accept you with all of your baggage, don’t deserve to be in your life at all. As harsh as that sounds, no one should ever make you feel like your feelings are invalid.
I know some of you are already changing your opinion of me; looking at me as someone who uses their problems to get attention. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. Many people, especially teens, are scared or uncomfortable talking about their struggle with mental illness. They fear bullies and peers that don’t bother trying to understand how they feel. The stigma behind depression and anxiety as well as all other mental illnesses are why everyone is scared and struggle alone in silence. THAT is why I share my experience. I am open about this because the more people that break their silence and talk about their battle with mental illness, the less intimidating it will become and the more people struggling will be willing to get help. Please share your stories. Reach out to your loved ones for support and most importantly, check on your friends. If you notice any changes or something strange with anyone, trust your instincts and ask them how they’re doing or if they need anything. I know that it doesn’t seem like much, but the smallest gesture could improve and make a difference in someone’s life. Be someone’s saving grace.