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What You May Not Know About the Student Who 'Has It All Together'

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A year ago, I was living through the worst few months of my life. This isn’t to say I wasn’t doing “well” or surrounded by loving family and friends — I had good grades, was participating in clubs and extracurricular activities, was in a loving and supportive relationship, and spent time with friends. For all intents and purposes, any observer would have said I had it together.

To me, fall and winter of last year almost seem like a bad dream now. It took enormous effort to get up every day and go to school. Things I knew I was supposed to enjoy, things that used to be the highlight of my week, became things I dreaded doing. Motivation to do classwork or activities was absolutely lacking. I regularly felt worthless, purposeless, unimportant. I cried once or twice a week, sobbing without reason. Sometimes it would even happen during a class at school — I vividly remember leaving Russian and physics on different occasions because the “black hole” or “pressing” in my chest was so intense, and I knew I was on the edge of what could become one of those times: uncontrollable sobbing, an impending sense of doom. Sometimes it was because I felt like I had performed “sub-par” and my teacher and peers were disappointed in me. Other times it was because I felt the dark cloud and started to feel like everyone was looking at me, which would make me even more nervous, which would make me feel like people would notice, and so on and so forth.

I had no idea what was wrong with me. Logically, I should be happy. I had a good life with good people and was successful in my endeavors. Even so, I felt like a different person. I may have known what I wanted in the future generally, but the prospect of choosing whether to see a movie or stay home brought me to tears. It was incredibly frustrating to feel controlled by my emotions — I didn’t know why I was feeling all of the things I was, but I knew I wasn’t choosing to. A good amount of the time I felt nothing at all. So, it became a cycle of second guessing myself and keeping all of these things from everybody else.

I’m a perfectionist. Knowing that, I didn’t want to share what I saw as a huge personality flaw with the rest of the world. Not with my friends, not with my parents, not with anyone. I didn’t even understand why it was happening — why couldn’t I get it together? I got good at glossing over “incidents,” having meltdowns in private or taking alone time when things got to be too much. I was good at hiding my problems. This was later described very well by one of the adults in my life: if my (self-imposed) standard was super high, say 100 mph, and I could perform at that level, that was great. But when things got hard and I could only manage, say, 65 mph, it felt like a massive failure. To anyone else, both of those are just “fast.”

One day I was probably reading a web comic about mental health and I had an a-ha moment: I think what I’ve been having are panic attacks. So, I talked that through with a close friend and, thank goodness, got the little bit of affirmation that yeah, that might be right. I went to my parents about talking to someone. I was vague about it and got teary and couldn’t say anything more about it than, “I want to think about talking to someone because I’ve been feeling bad.” Thankfully, my parents were incredibly supportive and proactive. I didn’t expect them not to be, but I was surprised when they were — they took it more seriously than I did, which was the push I needed. I talked to the school counselor, then to a woman named Cindy, who I continued to see for a few months. I got a safe, private space where , although it still made me very nervous to do so, I could talk through everything.

The first time Cindy and I talked, the first time I talked to someone who worked with anxiety and depression for a living, I was nervous. I cried, although during that time my crying wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary. She said that yes, it sounded like I had been experiencing depression. I had classic symptoms of anxiety and depression. After so many months of invalidating my own feelings, emptiness and sadness, it felt like finally giving a name to the “bad” made it easier to face. Now, I see that step as something similar to the plot of “The Neverending Story”: the evil force is defeated when Bastian gives the Childlike Empress a name. It’s a surprisingly good metaphor for the depression I experienced — the evil force is actually called “the Nothing.”

So, I was depressed. What now? Honestly, even though for years I had read and believed that problems with mental health shouldn’t be a big deal and, if properly treated and acknowledged, shouldn’t have to affect people’s quality of life, it still felt like there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t ready to share the emptiness and scary things that depression and anxiety meant for me, wasn’t ready to lay bare the most imperfect and vulnerable part of me. I knew it happened, I just never thought it would happen to me. This sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth. So, in a typical Connor way, I researched. I looked up depression and anxiety symptoms, treatment, and everything else. I found mental health advocates who wrote or drew things that seemed the encapsulate everything I was feeling. There were people who got what I had been experiencing. Approximately 16 million adults in a given year. I got better at analyzing my feelings, realizing that sometimes normal things could seem hard or scary and that I could acknowledge the feelings and refute them as irrational.

I learned to reason with the part of me that found those things scary, the panic, and figured out how to calm myself down. I started to exercise a lot more and practice self-care. That meant realizing I need to be by myself or with very close friends to recharge and taking that time when I needed it. That meant not going so hard on myself and realizing I’m my own harshest critic — realizing that whether I add something else to my plate or not, I’m pretty awesome.

Of course, this is the paraphrased version of the past year. Things didn’t change overnight, and it wasn’t easy to get to where I am now. But I’m here. I am and was a pretty “together” person. I’m a friend, a daughter, a sister, a student. I’m half a world away from my family and doing great. I’m learning a new language. I enjoy dancing. I have depression. Finally, I’m at a point where I can talk to my family, friends, and even strangers about it. I’m not sorry about it — the only things I’m sorry about is that it’s only now I can properly explain it to all of the people I care about.

I experience depression, and I am strong, fabulous, capable, and loved. These aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m aware I have to approach some situations differently, but I am just as capable as anyone else at doing whatever I set my mind to. This is my story, a very personal one at that. If I had read something like this a year ago, it would have helped me. And I can only hope my experience helps someone else, whether to understand me better, understand that depression and anxiety aren’t as scary as they seem sometimes, lessen the stigma they carry, or even to start a conversation.

I’m grateful for the people who helped me get here, the experiences and opportunities I’ve been given and the strength that I’ve found to do what I want to. Thank you for listening, and if you ever need someone to listen, I’m here. Stay awesome.

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Thinkstock illustration by Maddy_Z

Originally published: November 21, 2016
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