I recently reached out on social media asking people to share their testimonies and experiences with mental health. While I wasn't expecting many people to willingly share, I was overcome with emotion that countless people, both strangers and friends, wanted to talk about a topic so often pushed under the rug. My goal for this article was to bring light to mental illness and show that although people may appear picture perfect online, there is a often times lot going on behind the smile. Please remember to remain kind to everyone that you meet, you never know what people might be going through like the people who have so courageously shared their stories.
I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) since I was 16. My anxiety stems from my childhood, growing up in a divorced household, and overcoming a parent with substance abuse issues. It also stems from a very toxic relationship I put myself through for 2 1/2 years. I struggled heavily by being put down by my own parent for years, being told I was not good enough, and by someone I thought I loved telling me to change who I was so that I would become more liked. I learned to build bulletproof walls around my heart, and I became incredibly hard on myself. When people meet me, they see the bubbly, bright, smiley and full of jokes girl. However they do not understand that sometimes I am just not okay. People do not understand how words genuinely destroy people. It takes ONE sentence to bring someone down. Why not use that one sentence to build someone up? Always choose kindness. Always understand that someone might be smiling, but they're breaking on the inside.
My anxiety comes in waves. In high school it came whenever dance team started. I put everything into dance team and started seeing a therapist on how to handle friends, dance and school without being swallowed. I cried for days when anything dance team related didn't go as planned. Then in college it came whenever I was faced with going out to a party or staying home. I hated feeling like i wasn't outgoing or fun enough to go out all the time but my priorities were on school, friends and dance. I had friends and peers that just didn't understand that and didn't understand how I couldn't do it all. It simply overwhelmed me so much that i felt uncomfortable and unhappy in any of those situations. I now try to keep an open mind whenever someone turns me down or has different priorities than I do. No one knows exactly what its like to be you, and i try to see that as a positive rather than a negative.
Most of my life I was so concerned about what other people thought of me. I crafted this image of instagram-worthy perfection and would still cry myself to sleep every night over the things I was too ashamed to talk about. I grew up in a home that could only be described as a hostile environment. I loved going to school just to get away from the madness. All of my friends had seemingly perfect parents and happy relationships with them, and I was always left wondering why that couldn't be me. This went on for years until I met someone that completely changed my perspective and my thoughts on what it means to be vulnerable. In the years since she has taught me priceless lessons about open appreciation, kindness, and stability. I've come full circle and turned around and taught these same lessons to my friends in college. My life is more rich and gratifying than my younger self could have imagined. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to open up and let the people who love you in. Everyone has struggles, even the ones who's lives look perfect.
I have depression and anxiety. My story started when I was at a young age, I had a neighbor who physically abused me. Then it went on to my mother being an alcoholic and I couldn't fall back on my father because he was verbally abusive. At school I was bullied, and my sister always yelled at me. So I was alone, or at least I felt I was, the way you feel when you're in the true state of mind as being "alone" is not only the fact of being alone but wanting to be alone so no one could hurt you. You begin to hate everything about yourself because you're the only person you spend time with. But I think what truly helped me, is that I found true acceptance. I found people who accepted me, and that gave me hope. If those people weren't kind to me, if they weren't accepting of me. I don't know if I would've gained that hope that I needed. Thousands of people suffer from this, you can help. Just be nice, that's all. You don't understand how much it helps.
If I'm being honest, I never thought I would be affected by mental health issues. I had the happiest childhood, lots of friends, and the most caring and loving family. When I came to college I lived halfway across the world from my family, and that took a toll on me more than I had realized. My sophomore year I was so excited to move into my sorority house and live with some of my besties. Ironically, at a time in my life where I was constantly surrounded by people was also the time in my life where I felt the loneliest. I remember gradually eating less and less, sleeping more, not having the motivation to go to class or hang out with people, having my bed feel like my only safe space, and feeling invisible. Every day I talked on the phone with my mama (still do) and she ALWAYS asked me how I was doing/feeling that day. Going through that time period I would always just say "I'm fine", until one day I was so choked up I didn't even have the words to say how I felt; but my mama knew what was up (they always do don't they??). I told her I wanted to drop out of school and come home and just have her hug me, play with my hair, and tell me that everything was okay. She told me before we made any rash decisions I should try going to therapy and making time to do things that fill my soul with happiness, and boy did that make a difference. For me, I bottled up everything because I didn't want to burden anyone with what was happening in my life and I always put my friends' happiness before my own. But now I've learned that it's OKAY to be vulnerable, and it's OKAY to ask for help or for a hug on your off days. Don't ever think you're burdening someone because it's actually the exact opposite. Going along with that, if you see someone struggling or their habits changing, take ACTION and ask them to hang out one on one, or just go up and give them a big squeeze and let them know you're there for them. Most importantly, take time to do what you love to feel alive and fulfilled and put YOU first.
When I was growing up suicide was a common conversation as I have lost family members and even friends to it. The second time it happened was a family friend who I grew up knowing as this happy person who lived their life to the fullest always experiencing knew and exciting things. They eventually moved away to another state but would call to catch up and even visit us for special occasions such as graduations and they still seemed as happy as ever. The last conversation I had with them, they said: "No matter how happy things look from the outside, everyone has their own problems they are dealing with. Whether it seems big or not to you, it could be to them." When I got the call that he had taken his life it was the first thing I thought of and I viewed that conversation from a completely different view point. It was hard for me to believe that he wasn't happy, but it made me realize that just because someone seems happy doesn't mean they don't need to be asked every now and then how they are doing or if they could use any help or just someone to carry a little bit of the weight. It was a hard life lesson to learn but it has helped me through some of my low points in my life and it has also helped me understand that we all need to be more aware of what's going on with others and just choose to be more understanding.
I've suffered with diagnosed mental illness since I was about 13. A lot of it stemmed from self esteem issues, which were caused and only worsened by having to grow up around most people in my life telling me I wasn't good enough. I didn't think I was smart enough for my parents, I didn't think I was empathetic enough for my "friends," and God knows I didn't think I was pretty enough for any boy. I felt constantly attacked at home, at school, and being alone in my room wasn't even enough because I was attacking myself based on the hurtful things I was hearing everywhere else. High school drama, heartbreak, and even more problems with my parents only made things worse, and that's when I hit some all time lows, tried taking my own life, and started seeing a therapist. Since then, I'm not going to say that I'm all better because I'm not. I'm still changing. I'm still learning how to cope with life's hardships, be in healthy relationships with others, and be happy with the woman I am and becoming. But sometimes, learning and growing slowly is all you can do.
My freshman year of college began a bit differently that I expected. I was nervous about being away from home, meeting "my people," getting involved, college classes, etc. But it wasn't until I started experiencing (rather scary) physical symptoms that I knew this couldn't have been just "freshman year scaries." For two months straight, my chest hurt, a hurt that felt like there was a massive elephant sitting on me. Truly, the only time I couldn't feel this discomfort was when I was sleeping. Even then, I struggled falling asleep and once I finally did, I couldn't stay asleep. I would wake up to my heart palpitating, feeling as though it was going to burst out of my chest. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get my mind off of this feeling. I was CONVINCED I had some crazy, life-threatening condition.I had test after test after test run on my heart and chest. All of the results came back negative (praise Jesus), and there was in fact nothing physically wrong with me. So I get back to school and I'm like, "Sweet I'm healthy, I'm good. Everything's good. Let's move on." Sure enough, a few days later, this horrible feeling came back. After explaining to my doctor and a therapist more of my symptoms and thoughts in detail, they hardly thought twice about what was taking place. I was diagnosed with mild to moderate Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Let's face it, we ALL struggle with an internal "something," whether we admit that to ourselves/others or not. Something important to keep in mind is that people around you are struggling with numerous different types of things every single day. I battle with my anxiety every day. Anxiety, depression, anorexia or bulimia, bipolar disorder, and many other things that I have not yet mentioned; they are EVERYWHERE. Just because someone doesn't talk about it, doesn't mean it's not there. But here's the deal: We are not alone. I am not defined by anxiety. You are not defined by anxiety. By depression. By an eating disorder. By insecurities. By perfectionism. Whatever it is, those things have not, do not, and will never define who you are as a person and where you are going.
Anxiety. Something I never had ever even thought about it, or rarely had heard about it. This all changed my last 6 weeks of college. The pressure of finding a job, what I wanted to do with my life and leaving all my friends was hitting me fast. Fast forward 8 months and I find myself in a brand new city, a new job, minimal friends and feeling completely lost. Anxiety had always been something that was hush hushed in my family. My mom had battled with it, but always did a good job covering it up and never really talked about it. My dad always said it wasn't a big deal, that I could always talk to him and to just shake it off. Little did he know the struggle behind my smile was real. I decided it was time to go see a doctor and start the steps to get medicated. It was a scary decision, and something I was afraid to admit. Looking back, I wish that was never the case. I was 22 at the time and social media showed I was living in a new city and loving life and I had it all going on. Nobody knew the inner demons I was facing and the sadness I would experience living alone in my 700 foot apartment. My advice to everybody, be kind, go out of your way to ask somebody how they are. Surprise your friends with coffee, a random venmo, you never know what they are going through. At 25 almost 26, I am your biggest advocate of mental health. It is ok to be on medicine, it doesn't change who you are, it just brings out the best version of yourself. Just because somebody is smiling and happy on social media, you don't know the struggle they may truly be suffering. Love those around you, it goes a long way.