Throughout my childhood, the signs and symptoms of any mental illnesses went unnoticed as they disguised themselves as seemingly normal, and even desirable, attributes. Specifically, during my elementary school years, my parents were repeatedly told that I was a bright, happy little girl whose smile lit up the classroom. I was always eager to learn as much as I could and was able to absorb the material quickly in comparison to my peers. My intellectual ability combined with my high level of maturity qualified me as a ‘gifted child.’
At the time, being a ‘gifted child’ didn’t mean anything other than my parents had a smart kid. However, while recently trying to understand more about my mental health as a child, I stumbled across a fancy term called “asynchronous development” which is common in gifted children. Basically, this means that gifted children tend to develop emotionally, physically, and intellectually at uneven rates in comparison to their peers. I always thought it was interesting that when I used to go to an ‘after-school’ program I would tend to only hang out around the teachers, even though they were at least 3 times my age. In fact, I actually remember being ‘banned’ from the teacher’s table/area and told to go play with the kids that were my own age. This, combined with my family’s history of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, became sort of a ‘perfect storm’ compounding the effects over time.
Feelings of social inferiority continued to grow into and throughout my high school years as I obsessively compared myself to others in every way imaginable. I began to place all my worth and value in the hands of others. It could almost be described as a sort of addiction; positive comments would give me short-lived validation while negative ones would send me spiraling.
As time went on, I began to turn the positive comments into negative ones. Every text, every conversation, every encounter would be analyzed again and again trying to find some secret meaning behind what was said or implied. I remember this being most prominent during my senior year of high school, the spring half specifically. I would convince myself that my friends secretly hated me and that they would invite me places for the sole purpose of trying to embarrass me. This would send me down a rabbit hole of depression that was much harder to get out of than it was to fall in. As the depression started to take over, my immediate instinct was to shut down. I would spend hours, days even, in my dark bedroom which would then spark the anxiety of how I was wasting the so-called ‘best days of my life’ laying in bed. When I did attend events, I was always on edge—at my senior prom, I didn’t eat a single bite of food because the anxiety was so paralyzing.
Once I started college, everything was different. I thought that I had miraculously gotten better. I had a group of friends, a boyfriend, and I was having the time of my life. Everything was going better than I could have imagined, but then spring semester happened and, as I would later describe to my counselor, “my brain blew up again.” I couldn’t run or hide from the mental illnesses I faced, and they came back in full force. If I had to guess, I probably cried eight out of every ten days that semester. Some episodes were quick and easily hidden, others not so much. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in my dorm, tears streaming down my fact, and banging my head on the concrete wall. Between sobs, all I could repeat was, “I can’t do it anymore, why can’t I be normal, I wish it all would stop.” During those episodes, I felt like a completely different person, it’s almost indescribable. I couldn’t even control my own thoughts anymore. When I wasn’t in tears, I mostly just felt empty. Near the end of the semester, my friends became distant and started hanging out with another friend group. I focused a lot on my schoolwork that semester. For hours, I would have my nose in a textbook and cycle through math problems. As an actuarial major, there are always a lot of those. As you could imagine, my social life suffered tremendously.
Summer gave me a much-needed break. I was able to see my best friend every day and didn’t have the same academic and social pressures that I had on campus. Instead, I had others. During that summer, I decided to start studying for my first, of many, actuarial exams. I spent over $300 and studied for a couple hours a day for two months in order to prepare for this exam. That exam was on my mind every single moment of every single day for those two months. Somedays I would study until I was in tears convincing myself there was no way I would pass, and I would have to choose a different career. Friends and family continued to tell me that it was all going to be okay regardless and thankfully, I passed on exam day. I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened if I didn’t.
While every other college kid was itching to go back to school in the fall, I was dreading it. My friends were almost like strangers, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I felt completely and utterly alone. The first semester of my sophomore year began to remind me a lot of my spring semester freshman year. I spent a lot of time in bed not really feeling much of anything.
Finally, in October of my sophomore year, I decided I would go to counseling. This decision was not an easy one as for years I was determined to manage the illnesses myself. I saw them more as a character flaw that I needed to learn how to control as opposed to a chemical imbalance in my brain. My first few counseling sessions consisted of some tears and a lot of “I don’t know”s. I remember filling out a little questionnaire at one of my sessions that basically listed all kinds of symptoms of both anxiety and depression. After tallying up my answers, my counselor told me that I fell into the range of severe anxiety and moderate depression. I had a rush of mixed feelings when hearing this. Part of me immediately tried to downplay my experiences claiming that others had it so much worse than I did. I felt that what I had lived with for years did not warrant that qualification. Another part of me, however, was relieved to hear, from a professional, that what I was going through was real. Many of the personality flaws that I saw in myself were actually just symptoms of a chemical balance in my brain; there was a reason, an explanation for the way I felt. When you’ve dealt with mental illness for as long as I have, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from the illness. Working on this separation, in a way, became one of the goals of my time in counseling. I would dissect my reactions to certain situations trying to figure out if it was me reacting or if it was the anxiety reacting. Over time, I learned a lot about myself and the way my brain works.
In December of my sophomore year, I took another step towards recovery and went to a psychiatrist. I started medication and had appointments every few weeks to re-evaluate. As he increased my dose, I started to notice small changes. I remember being so excited when I was finally able to go to dining hall at school and sit at a table alone and while studying for my second actuarial exam I didn’t end up in tears once. Even my family and friends noticed more stability in my mood as my relationships with them improved. Choosing to get the help I needed and deserved is easily the best decision that I have ever made. I know that my anxiety and depression will always be something I deal with, but now I know I have the resources and the support system when I need them. Having people I can trust and that I know will be understanding and supportive has been really crucial in this process, whether it has been my counselor, my parents, my closest friends, or my boyfriend. Being open with them has been helpful in just getting my thoughts out of my own head. Looking at quotes is also something that I have loved for a long time. Just going on Pinterest or Instagram and flooding my mind with positive affirmations has helped to drown out the negative thoughts. Also, I have recently started working as a peer tutor at my school and, surprisingly, I have actually found it to be helpful with my recovery process. Being to both do math, which I have always loved, and help other people has given me a feeling of purpose and accomplishment. I can finally say that I have my life back and although the road never has been and never will be linear, it has allowed me to feel more ‘me’ than I ever have before.