On the last day of 6th grade health class, our teacher pulled out an empty box. She told us to write down any health-related question we wanted, regardless of topic, and she would answer all of our anonymous questions. For an 11 year old, this invitation was a goldmine. The class exchanged snickers and sideways glances over “penis” and “vagina” questions.
My teacher opened up one note that asked, “Is it bad to get 3 to 5 hours of sleep per night?” She answered the question quickly (yes, it is unhealthy) and moved on. Her lack of concern disappointed me, but surely, she reasoned that no kid gets less than 5 hours of sleep per night, right? It had to be hypothetical.
But somehow, that’s how I was living.
And it wasn’t just the sleep. My body and mind were constantly working against me. I was nauseous every day. My uneasy stomach was even worse when I was anxious, and I was almost always anxious, be it the first day of school or the day of a test.
In the 1st grade, we had to take a standardized writing test and I spent the entire night before the assessment crying and freaking out. My mom had to go in with me to talk to the teacher the next day so that they could assure me everything was going to be OK. The night before I had to give a presentation, I was absolutely inconsolable. Ironically, I would always get A’s but it didn’t prevent me from the physical and emotional manifestations of anxiety. My mind was an ocean in a storm, dark and unsettled.
As I got older and started dealing with the stress of greater self-awareness and expectations, the problem escalated. Throughout middle school and high school, my anxiety hounded me in closed classrooms where I’d glance at the clock every couple of minutes, wondering if I would throw up and have to rush out of the room.
Any energy I had was depleted by my daily routine and I had no drive to do anything. I tossed and turned at night until I was so exhausted that I eventually fell asleep. My restlessness was compounded by irrational fears. Somebody could break into my house. What if a fire starts and I have no way of getting out? I was afraid of the dark and had to use a nightlight or sleep with the light on.
I was so ashamed of who I was and how I felt. During high school, the feelings I had tried to explain away hit their peak. I was depressed and empty. Nothing excited me or made me happy. I would have spurts of manic energy and then burn out.
I thought it was all my fault. I thought I should just suck it up. In my mind, it was my burden to bear.
By my senior year of high school, I was having frequent thoughts of suicide and started physically hurting myself. I had my death all planned out by then. I would go into the garage, clog my car’s exhaust pipe, sit and wait. The only reason I never executed my plan was because I didn’t want to put my family and friends through the grief. I would rather take it all on myself, so I went through the motions while battling my constant inner misery.
And I was losing badly.
I hit my first breaking point that year (again, in health class). The day’s topic was mental health and I was feeling particularly claustrophobic, focusing on the door and the different excuses I could come up with. When I was anxious and stuck, I came up with escape plans.
OK, so I can buy myself a few minutes by going to the bathroom. Then I’ll come back and there’ll only be 15 minutes left of class. Maybe I can go fill up my water bottle, too. Is everybody going to notice I’m freaking out right now?
This time, the panic completely overwhelmed me. I left the classroom and went straight to the nearest bathroom, losing vision as I stumbled down the hallway. Even though I couldn’t see, instinct got me into the bathroom stall and I crumbled to the floor, soaked in sweat, heaving over the toilet.
I don’t know how long I sat there before my sight returned and the urge to vomit started to subside. I went to the nurse’s office and cried. They called my mom.
“I’m not OK. I need help.”
My depression and anxiety had reached a point where I couldn’t even pretend to function on a daily basis.
After the incident, I went to see a psychiatrist and I starting taking antidepressants along with seeing a therapist. Over the next year, the medication alleviated a lot of my anxiety and I stopped getting panic attacks. I wasn’t at rock bottom anymore, but I was still depressed. The dosage continued to go up, but it wasn’t enough. I dejectedly came to terms with the fact that medication wasn’t going to “cure” me.
So I became addicted to escape. In college, I was sleeping or partying to block out the constant emptiness. It spilled over into my working life after graduation.
And then something happened. It wasn’t a “breaking point” event like the panic attack that forced me to seek help. It was something far more subtle, and I didn’t even realize it until years after the fact. It wasn’t some earth-shattering epiphany or new medication.
It was me. I was getting better. And it was so imperceptible that I hardly noticed it.
I had been reading about psychology, neuroscience, and self improvement. I tried to emulate the practices of self-help gurus. In the beginning, it didn’t seem to work. I know I have to change my thought processes and habits, but it’s so hard. I can’t just change the way I think and feel.
I was skeptical, but I was so desperate to give my life meaning that I kept trying new things and seeking advice.
Only looking back on my personal journey did I notice that month over month, year over year, I was making progress. Every time I had to face a painful event, I was able to bounce back more quickly. I was more in control of my emotions.
And eventually, I felt happiness.
I don’t know exactly how to define happiness, but for me, it’s looking at myself as a friend, not an enemy. It’s knowing that the only control I have in this world is over myself, and I can be whoever I want myself to be. It’s knowing that no matter what happens to me, I’m going to be OK.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had bad days and bad weeks in which I started to slip back into my old thought processes and behaviors. I’m still a work in progress, and I always will be. Every day, I try to become a “better” person (at least my idea of what a better person is) and I take steps toward my goals so I can build the life of my dreams, because I know that I can.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Morra Aarons-Mele’s article, “My Life as an Unhappy Overachiever”. I was absolutely captivated by her story. It was raw, real, and a reflection of my inner battle. It was the impetus I needed to tell my own story.
In my lifetime, every single person I’ve ever met has either battled with mental illness or knows somebody who is affected by depression, addiction, or unhappiness with the state of his or her life.
I overcame my depression by integrating little tricks that slowly, eventually shaped my cognitive processes and mindset. I’m learning as much as I can about how the brain works so I can continue to reverse engineer happiness from within. I want you to know that happiness is possible, and I’m proof of that.
This blog is my contribution to helping others find their own version of happiness, because we’re all capable of so much more than we know. It’s not a quick fix and there is no big secret. We just have to put the inner pieces together.
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