“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
What is the purpose of sharing my story? It is to overcome my shame and perfectionism and have the courage to choose belonging over fitting in. Also, it is to help others do the same and to not feel alone. This is inspired by my years of counseling and Brene Brown. Brene is a researcher and storyteller and has written many books such as The Gifts of Imperfection. Her research and findings have helped me and inspired me throughout my mental health journey. Here are a few quotes from her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, to keep in mind while you read this journey.
On perfectionism: “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
On shame: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it–it can’t survive being shared…”
On courage: “Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, the is definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. …we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”
On fitting in vs belonging: “Most of us use the terms fitting in and belonging interchangeably, and like many of you, I’m really good at fitting in. We know exactly how to hustle for approval and acceptance. We know what to wear, what to talk about, how to make people happy, what not to mention–we know how to chameleon our way through the day…fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
I am no longer trying to fit in, I am finding belonging, I am putting down the shield and picking up my life, and above all, I am kicking shame’s ass by wrapping it in words. Here is Part I of my mental health journey.
It was the not knowing that was maybe the scariest part of my mental health journey. When I first experienced depression I had never felt it before and I didn’t know anything. There was no awareness of the fact that it was depression. I had no idea what I was feeling wasn’t the normal teenage experience, how my past played a role, and that certain things triggered me. I went along for years without any help and in pain because I just didn’t know.
The symptoms of my depression started when I was entering my freshman year in high school. Things started to feel off. I had always felt this innate happiness and bubbliness but it began to be sedated and replaced with fear, sadness, isolation, and pain. There were other things I experienced too like social anxiety, extreme perfectionism, and social isolation. Now, I know where a lot of these feelings and emotions stemmed from but at the time I had no clue. As part of my perfectionist tendencies, I exhibited very little on the outside. As a matter of fact, I was overcompensating. I was on the honor roll, doing well in sports, participating in almost every extracurricular. Being “perfect” became my camouflage, but inside I was hurting.
There was a small break in the clouds my junior year. For some reason the stars aligned, I felt more at ease, and that I had some positive momentum going. I won a trip to Washington, DC that remains one of the highlights of my young adulthood. I really enjoyed sports, school, and my friends. The best thing that happened that year was running track. I had done track every year but this year was different. It may have been all that positive momentum of the year carrying over into the final sports season, but running track this time around gave me the ultimate release from my depression and helped me cope with stress.
Over the summer of before my senior year, I did a study abroad in Spain. It sounds great but it triggered my depression. The healthy coping mechanisms that I had found in my junior year were disrupted. When I went to Spain I was in the city center of Valencia. The family I stayed with was afraid something could happen to me so I wasn’t able to go running. The loss of my emotional support outlet was something I couldn’t cope with so I started to eat, and eat, and eat. I would sneak to the fridge in the middle of the night and binge whatever was there. I didn’t know why I was doing it I just knew at the moment something about it gave me a sense of relief that I was no longer getting from running. This started a downwards spiral that continued through my senior year.
I came home and continued with my binge eating patterns and gained a significant amount of weight over a few months. The pain came rushing back over me and this time no amount of perfectionism could hide it. It began to show on the outside throughout the year. I went from being an honor roll student in all of my classes to failing. Then I stopped caring what I looked like and I started to isolate myself even from my best friends and dropped out of sports and my extracurricular activities. All I really knew myself was that I was hurting so much. I had out-of-control crying episodes where I would just scream. One episode got so bad that I felt so out of touch and I cut my own hair that had always been super long my whole life.
It wasn’t until it reached this noticeable breaking point that help appeared. My teachers and coaches had thankfully been trained to recognize the signs of a student in mental distress. I will never forget the day my closest teachers reached out to me and checked to see if I was ok. I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that, and that it was ok if I wasn’t ok. They were there to help or just listen. They stepped in, cared for me, and truly saved my life. Even as I write this now I can’t get through it without tears. I am so incredibly thankful for them. One of my teachers even shared their personal struggle with depression with me. This was really the first adult outside of my Mom who had ever told me this. I felt so filled with a sense of I am not alone it is unbelievable. There is so much power in telling your story to others, and for me, it was life-altering.
A lot happened in the next few months before I graduated. It was a step-by-step process but I did get so much better. Counseling was the most incredible step. I can’t speak enough to the miracle of a good counselor. My counselor was Jill and she provided a space where I could be open about everything and not feel fearful of being judged or shamed. It was a place where I could work through the things I was feeling overwhelmed about, things that had happened in my past, things that I hadn’t felt safe to tell anyone. I found that the more open and honest I was the more helpful it was. This first experience with counseling set the groundwork for what has been a lifetime of seeing counselors off and on. I thankfully had learned young that just like I take care of my physical health I need to take care of my mental health too.
While these truths about my life have been so difficult to share I truly believe it is important that I come out of the shadows of shame and perfectionism, and be more truthful about my life and my struggles. If we all were more open I truly believe lives could be saved, improved, and healed. My road with depression has had declines, inclines, and plateaus, but it has always been moving in an upward direction of growth. Part II is about my next bout with depression and a deeper dive into that time in my life.
*I am not a mental health professional and am in no way giving medical or mental health guidance. If you are experiencing struggles with your mental health always consult a professional. You can go to National Institute of Mental Health to get immediate help. If you think you may have an eating disorder you can go to NationalEatingDisorders.ORG for help.