By Emma Wenig and Lauren Porter
Hi I’m Emma. I’m a graphic designer, a national board member since 2017, and like a lot of people, I struggle with anxiety and depression. For Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share my experience with mental illness to help break the stigma surrounding the subject. While the concept of mental health is something the general public is aware of, it can be a deeply individualized and personal issue. Sometimes it’s difficult to translate what you’re feeling into words, which makes starting the conversation around the topic all the more difficult. With such an incredibly nuanced issue, I don’t think any one person can offer a solution. All I can do is share my experiences and hope they will resonate with someone else.
As previously mentioned I have anxiety and depression, and I've probably had the former most of my life but didn’t realize what it was until I was in college. Looking back there were a lot of signs that something was wrong, but I just thought they were normal things everyone experienced (Narrator: “They were not”). The concept of “relaxing” is not something that comes naturally for me. I obsess and fret over the details of every possible outcome of every aspect of my life. It can be all consuming and it’s not something I can just turn off at will. It becomes this jumble of uncontrollable, impulsive thoughts that consume every corner of my brain and they’re all yelling at the same time and it's hard to pick out a single voice and you cannot shut any of them up. It’s as exhausting as it sounds.
And this anxiety isn’t just felt in your mind, oh no, it can manifest as physical symptoms as well. Mine was so out of control that I would get ulcers in my mouth from stress on a regular basis. Sometimes this would be so painful that I wouldn’t be able to eat or drink properly. I have a vivid memory of my affiliate education process where we were supposed to interact with alumnae during cross week and I had mouth ulcers so intense I couldn't speak to anyone. Additionally, symptoms like headaches, nausea and neck/shoulder pain are something I’m still dealing with everyday. Your mind is a part of your body, and your mental health can have a physical effect on you.
While my anxiety was present for most of my life, depression only really started to hit after I graduated from college. I had been a great student all my life, and my time was designed around an academic setting from the time I was in kindergarten. In college, I filled my days with a full class load for both a major and a minor, hall government, greek life, and still managed to find time to go to the bar with friends (looking back, this overload probably did not help my anxiety). My brain was busy 24/7 for years and then after college, I had none of that. I had achieved my goal of graduating, but I now lived hours away from my friends and support system. I started struggling to do the most basic of tasks, finding even standing long enough to take a shower impossible. And while anxiety and depression seem like two incompatible opposites, they feed into one another. My anxiety was telling me I needed to do something, anything. But my depression made it impossible to do the smallest thing, which in turn worsened my anxiety. Everything felt like going through the motions, I lived in a sort of fog and still have trouble remembering whole sections of time. I was not taking care of myself, and after a few years of living like this I realized I could not handle this on my own. I desperately needed help.
I started seeing a therapist in August of 2018 and was incredibly lucky to find one I clicked with on the first try. I essentially broke down during the first few visits I had with my therapist, I had so much to sort through from literal years of not taking care of myself and felt completely overwhelmed. She helped organize all my emotions and thoughts and helped me to create an essential toolkit for caring for my mental health. Meeting with her became a regular part of my routine and helped me to feel more balanced and in control. Therapy is not a cure-all though, and despite all the progress I made I still had some severe anxiety issues.
One afternoon I was so anxious that I broke into a panic attack. Panic attacks were not new to me but this one felt different. I was experiencing incredibly intense chest pains and heart palpitations to a degree where I thought I was having a heart attack and/or was dying. I went to the hospital, where some tests were run on me that came to the conclusion that my heart was fine, it was just a reaction to the stress I was putting myself under. I was embarrassed, but it also helped me realize just how serious my problem was. I spoke to my therapist, and then my doctor about anti-anxiety medication. Up until that point I was very stubborn about not wanting to be on medication (partially because of pride, but mostly because I'm awful at taking pills) but after just a few months of taking Zoloft I realized it was a necessity. My anxiety was not something I could overcome by therapy and sheer will alone, I had a chemical imbalance that needed correcting, and there was no shame in taking a drug that helped me stay functional.
The last few years, especially during the pandemic, I’ve been focusing on taking care of myself. I’m very serious about my mental health and invest much more time and energy into making sure I’m at my best. My quality of life has drastically improved due to therapy and medication, I am much happier and feel much more in control of myself now.
I basically went through my mental health issues blind. I had no understanding that what I was feeling was not normal, and by not talking about how I felt I was further isolating myself. I am very high functioning, even when in a deep depression, so most of the people around me (including my closest friends) had no idea what was going on until years later when I was finally able to vocalize my pain. I cannot change what happened to me or how I dealt with my situation, but I can offer you some advice that helps me even today with managing mental health. These are some basic guidelines I follow that help me to stay healthy:
Recognize your warning signs
When you’ve had a few depressive episodes, it can become easy to notice a few early warning signs before it fully sets in. For example, mine is my ability to watch things. When I’m at my best, I almost exclusively watch new tv shows and movies because I get bored re-watching things. When I’m in a depressive episode I almost exclusively watch cooking shows and re-runs. When I feel like I don’t have the brain power to start a new show I was previously excited about and just want to watch 30 episodes of Cutthroat Kitchen, I know it's time to watch my mental health more closely.
Set small, achievable tasks for yourself
It's easy to feel overwhelmed. I used to get mad at myself because I used to be the person with tons of extra-curriculars who still got good grades and had time to party until dawn. Post-college, there have been times where the simplest task will be held off for months. The way I’ve personally found to help me through this is lists. First, I list all of my responsibilities (work projects, appointments, etc.) and then I break them into smaller, more manageable tasks. For example, instead of putting something broad like ‘cleaning’ on the list, I’ll break it into “dust floors, wash mirrors, fold laundry” so that I have small tasks to check off along the way that help me feel more productive. Lists are also great because brain fog is real and I have maybe one brain cell bouncing around my skull at all times so writing things down helps me focus.
Your room is your resting place, treat it like it
Over the years I’ve noticed that my anxiety and depression only get worse if my room is a mess. I have taken a lot of time curating my space to be one of comfort and joy for myself. I have art on my walls that makes me happy, books I love to read on my shelf, plants that bring me joy on my dresser (and everywhere else) and a prism in my window that reflects rainbows all over my walls. Additionally I feel much less stressed when my space is free of clutter, so I work hard to keep my room very clean. Knowing what brings yourself joy and taking steps to ensure your space brings you comfort are important to your mental wellbeing.
Make depression meals
I eat trash when I’m depressed and anxious. I don’t have the energy or mindset to think about cooking, and I tend to gravitate towards comfort and convenience. Your body needs fuel to keep going, and what you put into yourself is important. If you eat trash, you’re gonna feel like trash. When I’m feeling depressed, I have a go-to meal that is cheap, quick, nutritious, and easy-to-prepare: Kitchiri. It’s a rice and lentil dish from India. It has fats, carbs, protein, and pairs well with whatever else is in the fridge. Additionally, freezer meals that you can just take out of a bag and reheat are a good option for when cooking just isn’t manageable. Preparing meals like this in advance help you to take care of yourself when you really need the extra love. And drink water, trust me it helps.
When I say self-care I don’t mean taking bubble baths and doing face masks, I mean performing tasks that will make your life better at the end of the day. There is nothing wrong with doing the former activities, but broadening your view of what self-care can contain will only help you in the long run. Having difficult conversations with friends and family, setting firm boundaries, and asking for help when you need it are all self-care. Having a set sleep schedule, eating enough food and drinking enough water are all self-care. Knowing when to be gentle with yourself versus knowing when you need to hold yourself accountable is self-care.
So thanks for sticking around this far, I hope my experiences are helpful to hear. And as always, if you are struggling, know that it's okay to ask for help. No matter how alone you might feel, there are others who have gone through your situation and are there to help you through yours. It’s gonna work out, I promise. Now go drink some water.
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