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How I Stopped Pretending My Life Was Perfect Even Though I Wanted to Die

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I was in second grade, I threw up every day in class. It was always the same: My back felt like hot water was running down me. I thought I was in trouble, my heart racing, full of fear. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I felt guilty for the teachers who had to stop and help clean me up every day. They often reassured me, repeating things like: “This isn’t the end of the world, Kelby. It’s going to be OK.” But still, without much reason, I threw up and cried every day, and my “nervous stomach” caused other eating and digestive issues.

I know now what doctors couldn’t tell me back then: these were my first experiences having panic attacks.

I was always a “happy” kid; my brain was just filled with fears. I was a “healthy” kid up to this point, but now my body and mind felt like they were betraying me. I had a “good” life, but I struggled with it.

What started with throwing up quickly turned into a fear of what all my other classmates were thinking. I was embarrassed. I believed they all hated me and that my friends tolerated me. I didn’t think I was good enough, and I started building a perfectionist attitude toward myself. If I didn’t meet “perfection” in my eyes, I was a failure, and no outside encouragement could change that.

As I got a little older, I switched schools, but my problems followed. My once straight-As started dropping, despite trying my hardest, and I couldn’t understand why. My attendance was always the worst in my class, and I constantly felt overwhelmed and tired. None of this fit the “perfection” I strived so hard for, and I chalked it up to not trying hard enough. I believed the troubles I had were my fault, and the only way to fix it was to try harder.

I was 10 years old the first time I wanted to die — the first time I thought that I didn’t deserve to be alive anymore, and I certainly didn’t want to be if it meant living this way. Most nights I would lie awake, quietly sobbing and having panic attacks I hid from my parents. My mind would race with every fear imaginable, replaying any and every misstep or flaw I had. I prayed I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Finally I’d fall asleep, exhausted, sometime early in the morning. And when I did wake up for school a few hours later, still alive, I only felt the weight from the night before. It carried with me through my day and repeated all over again. This became a routine I continued into my adult life.

When I got into middle school, I found makeup. On the one hand, it served as a creative coping outlet. But on the other, I learned how to hide and distract from what was going on inside. If I did just enough, it appeared as if I was taking care of myself and it hid the pain. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that, by hiding my pain and troubles, I was denying myself the chance at getting any better. But for all I knew, these feelings were my own fault, and all I needed to do was try harder. To just do more. Then, I would be good enough and happy.

I transferred schools again, and I adjusted well. I had good experiences, I made good friends and boys liked me. (Because you know, when you’re in middle school and lack self-esteem, that’s the key thing. Right?) I was awkward, but for the most part, I probably appeared as if I had nothing to worry about. I had successfully put up the wall and facade I could isolate myself behind. But inside, I still struggled mentally. I began struggling physically with chronic pain and fatigue in eighth grade after an incident where I fainted in the heat. I still felt suicidal. But by all appearances, I was “fine.”

Moving into high school, I realize now that I lost a lot of good people and opportunities because I tried so hard to appear “perfect” and ignore what was truly going on inside. My schooling still suffered. My health suffered. My parents sought counseling for me, which meant being pulled from class once a week to meet in an empty schoolroom, with a therapist who chalked it all up to “teenage girl issues” and being sad that a boy broke up with me. I wanted to be left alone to deal with things myself, so I agreed and said what I thought they wanted to hear.

I went through life trying to smile and be optimistic, with the weight of feeling dead inside. Everything seemed fine and good enough, but it wasn’t. I sought to always do my best, and I cycled through a lot of highs and lows. I did my best to hide it because in my mind, I had a “good life” and no valid reason to feel sad. In the words of some people around me at the time, I was just being “lazy” and “negative.” So again, I believed the problem was simply my attitude and that I needed to try harder to change. I pushed myself as hard as I could, when I could, still not sleeping at night due to panic attacks.

In the fall of my senior year, I was so happy to make it onto the Homecoming Court.

A couple of months later, I had a breakdown and wanted to kill myself.

I felt ambitious.

I tried my hardest.

I did my best.

But I had a mental illness. It wasn’t being treated, or even authentically discussed.

I went on to graduate high school, and for a moment I felt genuinely happy with the track I was set on for my future. A few weeks later, my dad passed away. I wish, in retrospect, I had the appropriate coping skills to deal with things and to properly grieve the loss of my dad. But instead, I chose isolation. I chose numbing my life out with alcohol and drugs. And I chose to cope with recklessness at the expense of other people. My life fell out from under me and once again, I was left wishing I wasn’t alive. I certainly didn’t want to be. I didn’t believe I deserved to be, and the way I went about things only made it much worse.

At 19, I took a leap and I “ran away.” I moved away from my hometown and went across the state. I was isolating, but this time I was trying to isolate myself from all of the things that were having a negative influence on my life. Granted, I was still sick. I still had mental illness, I still dealt with chronic pain and fatigue that limited me.

But for the first time, I genuinely acknowledged my mental state. I understood that the illnesses themselves were not by my choice, but the way I go about treating them is. That the problem was never a lack of trying, I was just trying to do the wrong things. I wasn’t ever trying to treat my mental illnesses. I was gifted a lot of wisdom that changed my life for the better and set me up on a new path. For the first time, I felt authentic, like I began to understand what the issues truly were.

So then, a month before my 20th birthday, when I got the phone call that someone I loved dearly had attempted suicide, I knew I could never go back to dealing with my own mental health the way I had for so many years. No more isolation, no more cover-ups, no more ignoring the problem.

Nothing true ever came from pretending things are perfect.

And when I realized I was struggling to cope with the stress of the news I had just received, I wanted to be proactive instead. I sought help, and I was admitted to a mental health facility, where I received a full diagnosis and experiences that reshaped the way I view my mental health.

It doesn’t mean things are perfect. I moved back home after that, and to this day I’m still finding balance in my everyday life. But rather than feeling like I want to die, I know I deserve to cope and experience life filled with the treatment (not struggling) of mental illness. I still struggle with fears, like leaving the house or driving a car. I struggle with chronic illnesses and the anxieties associated with that. I still get depressed sometimes and experience panic attacks.

But I’ve also been able to sit with myself, learning to love myself enough to fight for getting better. I learned my triggers, signs and signals that things are getting bad. I practice healthy coping skills, and I cut out alcohol altogether. I seek comfort in the things I can do, and I fight not to ridicule myself for the things I cannot do. I learned when to be “selfish” in taking care of myself. I found my voice in discussing my mental health and struggles with other people. I’ve built relationships out of authenticity and owning who I really am. I fell back in love with art, writing and makeup. I’ve allowed myself to grieve the losses, and rejoice in the smallest of victories.

I allowed myself room to feel like everything is not OK, and that is OK. I know this battle may end up being lifelong, but I believe now that there is more life to be lived.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Studio Reasons on Unsplash

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