I’m having a hard time. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and my feelings are getting the better of me. My work schedule is one that provides me with Tuesday and Thursday afternoons off, which usually is great. I can fill that time with other things, like hair and makeup clients, errands, or housework. Even though those afternoons are technically time off from my job, I like to fill them with other kinds of work. I don’t like to have down time with nothing to do. It’s rare that I would be sitting on my couch, watching Netflix shows, getting lost on social media, or even reading a book. As someone with depression and anxiety, if I’m at home with nothing to do, my feelings get the better of me. I’m feeling a lot right now, on this particular Tuesday. I’m sad because my dog just died, and there’s this gaping hole where he used to be. I’m stressing over what I will write here, and if it will make any sense or help anyone. I don’t know what I’m making for dinner, or what I will have to buy from the grocery store in order to make it. I’m also lowkey invested in the smell coming from my fridge. I can’t figure out what it is. I’ve cleaned the fridge out multiple times in the last week but the smell is still there. It’s shocking, really. It bothers me but I’m also slightly impressed at whatever it is. Good hiding out, man. Way to hold strong. You’re driving me crazy, but I admire your persistence.
As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my mental illnesses has changed. That’s right, fam. I said “illnesses”, plural. My depression and anxiety have always gone hand in hand. I used to think of my illnesses as something that I have no control over; like it’s something that just happens to me while I sit by, helpless. I used to feel as though my life wasn’t my own, like I was watching someone else’s life through one of those old Super 8 video cameras with the grainy, jumpy film. I really believed that I was powerless against my feelings, like they were an ocean that I was drowning in. Sometimes I still feel that way, but because of my healthier relationship with my illnesses, I know that I’m not really drowning. It’s important for us to have an understanding of our illnesses, whatever they may be, so that we can have a healthy relationship with them. In the emotion ocean, feelings come in waves. It’s just like my favorite bad boy poet John Mayer says, “Oh, honey. It’s just a wave. And I know that when it comes, I just hold on until it’s gone.” Though I can’t choose when the waves of depression or anxiety hit me, I can control whether or not I allow myself to be submerged. By learning how my illnesses affect me, I have been able to teach myself how to keep from drowning.
Everyone deals with mental illness in a different way. Some people garden or paint. Some wake up early every day and go to the gym. Some sing or write. Some of us do all of these things because we need all the help we can get. Medication is available when singing and gardening and painting aren’t enough. Though it is not a decision that should be taken lightly, there is no shame in seeking help from a medical professional and getting on medication. I was on medication for about five years in my early 20’s. The decision was a very hard one for me to make. It was also very upsetting at first. When my doctor suggested it, I cried and became angry with myself. I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just be happy on my own. What did I have to deal with that was so bad anyway? People all over the world were living much harder lives than I was, in much worse conditions. I felt very ungrateful for the life that I had. It took a while for me to be fair to myself, and to understand that though there are greater problems in the world than my own, that doesn’t mean that my problems aren’t valid or real. It is not selfish or ridiculous for me to get help when I need it, and it’s not weak to admit that I need it. We are not meant to do things alone, and we should use every resource we can to ensure that we are healthy, both mentally and physically.
How can we know when we have more than “just” the blues? How are we supposed to know that what we are experiencing is more than just general sads? I always tell people that if you’re living a life inside your comfort zone because you are too afraid or sad to leave it, then it’s probably time for you to get extra help from a professional. I’ve always been a functioning sad person, meaning I still went to work and church like normal. I even had a calling in primary. But I was not okay, because after I did those things, I would hide out in my room and avoid going places where I had to see people I knew. I refused to do anything that scared or overwhelmed me at all. I wasn’t living, I was just existing. And you guys! Life is so much more than simply existing!
When dealing with and trying to manage mental illness, it’s important to know what helps or hurts you. Napping is one of my favorite pastimes in the whole world, and let me tell you I am very good at it. There was a time in my life where I described myself as a marathon napper. Napping is one of the things that depression has taken from me. I started to realize pretty early on in adulthood that every time I would nap on my days off, I would spiral into a very dark depression. Upon waking up I would become lethargic and irritated. I would look at myself in the mirror and hate what I saw. I would lose all desire or motivation to do anything for the rest of the day, and then when it came time to sleep for the night, I would be wide awake. Despite feeling this way, I continued to nap on my days off. I was angry that I couldn’t do what other people could do so easily. Why couldn’t my body and mind handle a nap? That didn’t seem fair to me, and it didn’t make sense. In a way it’s similar to how those with an addictive personality don’t ever get to drink socially or use drugs recreationally. Lots of people do these things and never become addicted. For someone with an addiction, every day is a struggle. Every day they have to think of other things to do to keep them from their vices. Depression works in a similar way. I’m not saying that I am addicted to naps, or that depression is the exact same as addiction, but there are similarities. There are certain things I have to steer clear from so that I can maintain a healthy mental state. I cannot stress enough the importance of a healthy sleep schedule when struggling with mental health issues. For me that means no more naps, and no more sleeping in. It’s so important for those of us that struggle with depression to have a bed time, and a set time when we wake up, regardless of whether or not we have things to do. The latest I ever sleep in is 8:00 in the morning, even when I don’t have work. Anything later than that, and I crash hard. My whole day is thrown off, and I get very little accomplished. A healthy sleep schedule helps me make the most of my time, so i can feel good about my day.
Exercise also really helps me to overcome my depression. I find that when I exercise regularly, I am happier, less irritated, and more kind to myself. It sounds crazy, but I literally see myself in a different light when I am physically active. My skin looks better, my body feels stronger, and my mind is clearer. I know that I am not my ideal weight right now- I’m not anybody’s ideal weight right now- but I don’t exercise to be a size two. I exercise so that I can function. About a month ago, I made a goal to get up at 5:00 every morning to run on the elliptical before work. I hate it so much, you guys. It is seriously so hard for me, but my day is so much better when I do it. I wish I could exercise after work, but I always find excuses not to. There’s always something going on that is much more fun than exercising, and I don’t want to miss out on time with my family and friends. I really don’t like losing the hour of sleep, but the results far outweigh the inconvenience of that lost hour. Getting up early is a much better way for me to get my exercising done. It’s just me playing tricksies on my mind, in a way, since I just roll out of bed (literally- sometimes I even crawl over to my shoes), put my exercise clothes on, and hop on the elliptical. I don’t have time to object or make any excuses not to do it. I never hit the snooze button because I’ve found that the extra nine minutes of sleep never make me feel more rested. Besides, the sooner I get on the elliptical, the sooner I can get off of it! If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is. My time spent exercising in the morning is not time lost or time away from those I love because who else is even up at five in the morning? Everyone is asleep except maybe my neighbor’s cat Albus, who is obsessed with me, and garbage men.
When I was 18 I went to California Adventure with my best friend. I had never been before but being the Disneyland fan that I am, I figured I would love the new park just as much. When I got there I noticed that lots of the rides were “grown up” rides. The big ride at that park was a roller coaster called California Screamin’. I liked roller coasters, but only the ones that didn’t go upside down, and this one went upside down. I wanted to have fun in the park, but also didn’t want to ride any of the “scary” rides. I only wanted to ride the rides that I was used to, that I felt safe on. Because of this, I avoided California Screamin’ for three whole days. I watched people get off it and wondered how anyone could ever have fun on a ride like that. I don’t even know what I was so scared of really, but this ride hovered over me like a black cloud. I wanted so badly to get up the courage to ride it, but I couldn’t. I had a pit in my stomach for the entire trip.
On our last day, I decided to take control of my emotions and ride it. It’s not like I became unafraid. I didn’t go on it because I was suddenly magically excited about it. I did it because it scared me so much it made me sick, and I hated that I had let my fear of the ride control me. I knew I had to ride it because I was afraid of it. It sounds stupid and small, but to me at that time, it was the biggest thing in my life. It really bothered me that everyone else was having fun on this ride and I sat on the sidelines, too afraid to go on it.
My best friend and I hopped in our seats together. I remember feeling so sick, thinking I was going to throw up. I was shaking, and I had talked to myself the entire time we were in line. I continued to talk to myself while we were waiting to take off. I’m sure my friend thought this was amusing, because she was laughing the whole time, but I didn’t care. I had to assure myself that I could do this, that it wasn’t scary, that I would survive. When the coaster took off I screamed so loudly that my lungs burned. The first drop came and it took my breath away so much that I made a heaving sound out of my throat that sounded like barfing, only no barf came out. My friend laughed, and eventually I started laughing too, because I was having fun. It was great! I was having the time of my life! I looked around and everything around me seemed more bright and beautiful than ever before. When the ride stopped, I couldn’t even believe I was ever afraid of it. I had so much fun I couldn’t even remember what the problem was in the first place.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that much like the ocean, that roller coaster was a metaphor for life. I LOVE METAPHORS FOR LIFE! There will always be a roller coaster in my life. Though not every challenge I face is as fun as riding an actual roller coaster, I am always better in one way or another after conquering my fear. Sometimes that roller coaster is speaking in church, sometimes it is making a phone call. Sometimes it’s going on a blind date, or confronting someone who has hurt me. Some days my roller coaster is something really lame, like finding what smells in the fridge. It was cheese, by the way, the thing that was making my fridge smell. A bit of cheese had fallen out of a baggie, and was hiding in the back of the meat drawer. I found it! Victory! Whether it’s a big roller coaster or a small one, the important thing is that we don’t let ourselves avoid the ride, we step up and embrace it. It’s funny, California Screamin’ is my favorite ride now. Even so, nothing will ever be as fun for me as my first ride was, because it was so much more than a ride to me that day. It was me saying, “NOT TODAY, ANXIETY!”, and taking control of my fears. It was bravery, in its own small way. Bravery is necessary for growth, and if we aren’t growing then we aren’t living. You know those posters you see in the halls in your school that say “LIFE EXISTS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE”, and then there’s like a picture of a cat in a tree or a bird flying through the air? Those are really dorky ways to tell you a very true thing. Living inside of a bubble isn’t living at all. So do you want to just exist? Or do you want to live? Ride your roller coasters. Scream all the way down if you have to, and when you’re ready, throw your hands in the air. I promise you, when it’s over you won’t even remember what you were so afraid of.