In 2005, I graduated high school a semester early to "take some time to find the right college." I spent the next 6 months sleeping in, avoiding the gym, and disconnecting from my high school friends.
It wasn't just the exhaustion of 3.5 years of trying to fit in and failing. I was pretty sure I was depressed. Fast forward over ten years and I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
My journey with mental illness took place in 3 stages:
- The high school phase, where a heavy sense of sadness dominated
- The college phase, where I finally fit in and felt like I might be "normal"
- The graduate school phase, which was like high school on steroids
Depression and anxiety aren't always at the forefront of my life, but they're always in the background. When I was younger, naming my problems felt empowering.
These days, I like to say I "experience" depression and anxiety. I've become less attached to the labels, but "someone with a mental illness" is still part of my identity. And, I don't see this as a bad thing.
Here are 7 things you need to know about living with a mental illness. Maybe you'll see yourself in a few of these.
- My mental illnesses are invisible disabilities
It’s easy to disregard things we can’t see with our own eyes.
If someone is on crutches, our impression of them as a person doesn’t change. But, we might help them pick up a book they dropped, pull out a chair for them, or expect them to use the elevator.
When someone like a professor doesn’t know I have depression and anxiety, they might assign me with the label “lazy” if I miss classes or am lethargic in class. There’s a bigger issue at play, but because they can’t see it, it isn’t there. A lot of times, this means I have to speak my disability into existence by asking for help.
- Depression isn’t the same as being sad
Everyone feels sad sometimes. Your boyfriend broke up with you—you’re sad. You didn’t get the lead in the school play—you’re sad. This is nothing to worry about.
Depression is extreme sadness for a long period of time for no reason. It means the things that used to make you feel good—like yoga or petting your cat—don’t anymore.
- Anxiety isn’t the same as being nervous
Everyone gets nervous sometimes. You have an interview for an internship—you’re nervous. You have to give a speech in class—you’re nervous. This is normal.
Anxiety is having a general feeling of unease. It interferes with daily life. And, it doesn’t go away.
- I can’t just “get over it”
Contrary to what some celebs would have you believe (ahem, Tom Cruise), mental illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
I can learn to manage my depression and anxiety better. But, I can’t waive a magic wand and make them go away. (Boy, do I wish I could.)
- Mental illnesses can manifest in physical ways
Everyone is different, but my depression and anxiety cause stomach problems like you wouldn’t believe!
Something I’ve learned over the years is that I can’t eat before social events. The number of times I’ve thrown up before a party or a concert is more than I can count on 10 fingers.
- Day-to-day activities can be exhausting
Just like wheeling around on a knee scooter because of a broken ankle is tiring (I know, I’ve done it), dealing with depression and anxiety can be tiring.
Sometimes it’s a daily battle just to get out of bed. Sometimes my brain runs 37 scenarios of why my friend hasn’t texted me back yet.
When I get home from my 9-5, all I want to do is lie down on the couch and veg out in front of Netflix.
- I’m not “being dramatic”
You know that theatre kid at your high school? The one who recites monologues at lunchtime? And dyes her hair a different color every month?
Don’t compare me to her. More than anything, I want to be seen as “normal.”
If I talk about depression and anxiety a lot, it’s not because I want to capitalize the conversation—or make myself more interesting than you. I just need someone to listen and validate my feelings.
Having a mental illness isn’t all doom and gloom. It has made me more thoughtful and empathetic.
One of the worst things about having a mental illness is feeling misunderstood.
If you saw yourself in this article, share it with a friend who doesn’t “get it.”
My hope with this blog is to help more people “get it,” so you can skip feeling alienated and get straight to helping yourself.