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My Life With Anxiety and Depression: What I See vs. What You See

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What you see…

A smile. Jokes and laughter. A master’s degree; intelligence. A positive thinker. A source of advice. Family-oriented. Cares about others. Perfectionism, that I brush off as being,”randomly anal about certain things” so it’s humorous. Confidence. I know what I want. I might let you in that I’ve been hurt a few times but look, just look how strong it’s made me. Someone to look up to. I crack a few self-deprecating jokes,”I’m super good at BSing,” but not enough to let you know that I believe all of them. “Fake it ‘til you make it!” except you never make it that way, really. I’ve carefully crafted my mask to show these things to you. It’s taken years and too much effort. But the mask can fool many. Even professionals, sometimes. I’m OK. I’m fine.

What I see/feel…

Inadequate. Not good enough. Always room for improvement. Worthless. Stupid. Alone — who wants to be friends with a loser like me? You’ve seen how it ended all those times before, I tell myself. It’s better alone. Trust only yourself. Sometimes not even that. Don’t let them know who you really are. Do you even know who you really are? People pleaser. What do I want? You say I’m smart. I need you to explain, but that’s weird to ask of someone. Please, convince me I have some worth? Very few would genuinely miss me if I was gone. I’m angry at the few who would care because they are what’s stopping me. I care and I don’t want to hurt them. Resentful. Scared. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be alone. I wish I could take the mask off. I wish I could combine who I am with the mask on with who I am without it. Would I be good enough then? Smart enough? Strong enough? Confidence doesn’t exist in my mind, but I’ve learned enough to create the illusion. Why am I never as good as everyone else? Why do I compare myself to everyone else? Why can’t I just be normal? What’s wrong with me?

What my therapist sees…

A mixture of the mask but with the real me desperately trying to gain center stage. When that happens, the mask comes right back, because I “slipped up.” She’s someone with an abnormal thought pattern. My two most vital, internal thoughts, I’m told, are,”I always mess everything up” and “I’m never good enough.” I don’t argue, those thoughts are so familiar I can barely remember a time they didn’t constantly run through my head. She sees someone who needs to learn proper coping skills, but I either fail at those or don’t put enough effort into it so they don’t seem to work. She sees someone with depression, anxiety, ADD, but mostly, someone who wants desperately to fit in but can’t figure out how. We work on triangles, which I like because I’m a visual learner — what am I thinking, what am I feeling, what am I doing, they’re all connected, and in the middle is the “event” that caused it. I can convince myself that almost anything is my fault, but she can show me how silly that looks. But she’s not there all the time, and when I’m alone, it’s easy to fall back into patterns. It took over 30 years to think this way, she says, it’s not going to change overnight. Our weekly visits were teaching me something, something no other therapist taught me before. Then COVID-19 hit. School closed, I’m “working from home.” All alone because we’re in quarantine. I lost my footing. My progress seemed to disappear. The focus of every session is now on making sure I make it through this. We don’t talk about my thinking anymore but it’s still the problem. It’s really hard to pour your feelings out over a web cam therapy session, anyway.

What my depression looks like…

An apartment, littered in empty boxes and trash tied in bags and fruit flies they’ve attracted. Disgusting. Christmas trees still up in May. Piles of papers and things that need to be thrown away. Cups and cans lining every available surface because I’ve taken the trash out maybe twice in the past six months. Showering in a desperately needing to be cleaned shower, but I only shower once or twice a week or maybe three times if I’m lucky. My scalp starts to itch and my leg hair pokes my sheets at night and bothers me. Not much need for laundry when you wear the same thing for at least three days or until it gets dirty or smelly or you shower. And when you shower you feel glorious and think you should really do this every day but the next day it’s so hard to get out of bed a shower is completely out of the question. It’s me ignoring texts and phone calls, procrastinating even more than normal on school work and work. Avoiding, my therapist says. I’m an avoider. When things go south, I occupy myself with other things so I can effectively feel productive yet avoid the main concern at hand. Days go by and I don’t talk to anyone except my cat sometimes. No one texts, no one calls. I’m alone anyway but I’m even more alone because we’re in a pandemic and we’re supposed to socially distance. These are all new words to my vocabulary that feel funny to say, because they’re still somewhat foreign, but I have to say them because that’s what’s happening. The only positive thing of being stuck in my apartment is the relief that my landlord won’t come do any kind of random “inspection” and my pathway through the trash from the kitchen to my bedroom where I spend my time these days.

What my depression feels like…

A giant, heavy weight being pushed down on my chest constantly. I move in slow motion. It takes me an hour to work up the energy to get a drink from the kitchen. Sleep. I can sleep and sleep and sleep. And if I wake up, I can take some medication and sleep some more. Sleeping means not thinking, and not thinking means the sweet nothingness. Most of the time, depression feels like it’s wrapped in some kind of shield — a shield that feels numb but lets me feel just enough to know what’s lurking below. I’m treading water, going nowhere, trying to stay afloat. Sometimes I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to kick at the air until there’s no fight left in me. But that doesn’t happen much, even when I will it to. Depression is a rolling, scary sea for me — even when it’s not at its stormiest, something is always brewing. Everything is “proof” of how worthless I am. No one calling or texting. No one cares to even check in, even though I specifically asked people to. I hear about other people, going on with their lives during this pandemic, and I want to scream and rip my hair out because why for once can’t I just be one of the normal people? I feel like I’m punishing myself. See this dirty apartment? You deserve this. Living with flies? Yep, you deserve that too. Because you’re a lazy slob. Don’t try to blame this on your “depression” like it’s an excuse. You probably don’t even have it. And, thanks to “friends” who were trying to be “helpful,” a new recurring thought is,”Other people having depression and they don’t act like this.” “Just think positive!” they say, like if it were a choice, I wouldn’t choose it. My mom’s primarily the one who checks in on me regularly enough to notice if something had happened to me. Who’s going to do that when she’s gone? That terrifies me. Then we have the psychiatrist telling me I’ve tried so many medications we’re getting to the end of the road, and I could try TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation to the brain). It’s recommended for treatment resistant depression. I saw my therapist right after that visit. I remember telling her I felt like it’s my fault and what is wrong with me that no medication will help me feel better? We made a triangle, she asked if I was really blaming myself for a pharmaceutical not working on me, asked if I had evidence the drug worked on others (I told her if she gives me a minute I could look up some numbers), and I felt a little better.

What my anxiety looks like…

This is harder to explain, because I can feel that my anxiety is hidden enough, but others (especially professionals) can see right where I let it slip through the cracks. They note that I fidget a lot, I pick at my nails, I run my fingers through my hair, I pick at my lip, tap my feet and I’m aware of some facial ticks I get that I don’t always notice immediately. Procrastination. Cleaning — anything to do with breaking down tasks into smaller pieces. I can be black and white, all or nothing. I get irritable. Again, I avoid — even if it’s just to take a break because I can’t handle the situation. I talk fast naturally, but if I’m anxious, I talk even faster — so fast that I’ll start blending words together and have to take a deep breath to slow down. I’ve started warning people at work meetings ahead of time that I tend to talk fast so slow me down if you need to. Anxiety can also be laying in bed for long periods, avoiding triggers. Instead of sleep, however, anxiety brings me restlessness — racing thoughts and what I call a “half-sleep” where my body is never fully asleep the entire night. I’ve cried because I’m anxious. But by far the biggest sign is avoidance of necessary and day-to-day tasks.

What my anxiety feels like…

This is also harder to explain because my body is always at a heightened state of anxiety, so I’m not sure what it’s like to not have any anxiety. My therapist explained it like this — if there was a scale for anxiety, most people on a daily basis would register pretty low on that scale to start off with. But me, lucky me, I’m already halfway up the scale when I wake up. So when something happens, say something small, a typical person’s anxiety would raise slightly. Meanwhile, my anxiety, since it’s already heightened, goes shooting into fight or flight mode. The only positive part of anxiety is that I know my triggers. The negative part is that I can’t always avoid them. It feels like every day there’s an obstacle course set out for me full of mouse traps, and I’m tiptoeing and stepping over things and carefully ducking under things to try to not set them off. Because if one goes off, I’m likely to lose my balance, and it will be followed by another and another. Sometimes anxiety feels like I’m stuck in my own skin and don’t belong here — I want to claw my way out and tear away at my hair, but I can’t. A small comment someone makes I can take the wrong way and immediately assume they hate me. I can be on the verge of tears but have no idea why. If I ever get called in to “meet” or “talk,” I automatically assume I’ve done something wrong, it’s for the worst, and I’m in trouble. My anxiety makes me an expert at self-sabotage. There is some truth to the saying that when you’ve grown up in chaos and your life in constantly in a state of chaos, you seek chaos. It makes sense. It’s where you’re comfortable, this new state of peace you’re seeking feels awkward and open and new. My anxiety is usually pent up until something triggers it, creating a domino effect and an essential minor breakdown. I curl into the fetal position and sob and sob and might hit myself because I’m so angry and I just have to let everything out before I can feel better again. Obviously this isn’t the healthiest, but it’s something I hope we can work on in therapy.

Everyone experiences depression and anxiety in different ways. No way is “right” or “wrong.” If you have a friend who you know is struggling with depression and anxiety, please reach out to them and check on them from time to time. I know we don’t always return phone calls or text messages, and we have a bad habit of backing out of plans and isolating ourselves, but that’s when we need people the most. And if you can stick out the less desirable traits ingrained into our psyches, you’ll get to experience some of the pretty wonderful qualities we’ve gained by going through what we have.

Please, don’t give up on us yet.

Getty image via Aleksei Morozov

Originally published: May 13, 2020
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