Letting Go of the Shame Surrounding My Mental Illness

 

*The following many be triggering to those affected by self-harm and depression.*

 

Last month, I found a note I wrote when I was 9 years old. It was hidden deep in the bedroom closet of my childhood home. Soon after I began to read it, I realized it was a suicide letter.

Suicide itself was not specifically detailed, so it was a little cryptic. I tiptoed around the topic; I don’t think I had ever even heard the term “suicide” before. In the letter, 9-year-old Maya explained how life was too hard for her and that she needed to leave. I wrote to my family and friends that it was not their fault, and that I’d always love them,  apologizing for being selfish, but with a hint of hesitation by including the idea that I thought their lives would be easier without me.

The letter was the first of many folded up pieces of scrap paper.

After years of therapy and intensive treatment, I’ve learned to dig deeper into my memory to evaluate childhood events and dynamics that contributed to the development of the mental illnesses I have today. I was already aware of my mom’s alcoholism and of my parents’ broken relationship. But, this was the earliest, actual piece of evidence I found that tangibly initiated my mental health trials.

Seeing 2008 as the year listed atop of the old wrinkled paper shocked me. I was mortified that a child young could house the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that I still struggle to work through today, as a young adult. The letter triggered a series of events within my mind. I began to recall memories I had buried so deeply that their existence was almost erased.

I watched the new Christopher Robin movie, and emerging from the adorable story and characters I loved so much as a child was another memory — one from when I was little and comparing myself to every animated character I fell in love with, constantly changing my metaphorical identity from Belle to Jasmine. Yet, out of all of the Winnie the Pooh characters, I thought of myself as Eeyore. I didn’t want to be the severely depressed donkey living in misery. I wanted to be Roo or Piglet, the cutest ones that made people smile. But the truth was, in my heart, I knew that I was Eeyore.

Growing up, I liked to constantly change my style. I was obsessed with self expression and figuring out who the “real” me was. In 7th grade, I wore dark purple eyeshadow for a week and decided that that was my thing. This evolved into glitter eyeshadow the following week, since that’s what the popular girls started wearing, and in my mind, I was supposed to be popular. At one point, I bought a sock monkey beanie with ears attached to the top and wore it around the house and out and about with my family for a few days because I told myself that THIS is the real me: I’m the quirky girl that wears a funky hat. 

When I was 15, I decided to embrace the hippie life because my dad was a surfer and drove a 1989 Volkswagen bus. I believed that hippie genes ran through my veins… which isn’t totally untrue. Numerous parts of my personality do reflect those of my dad’s, who grew up in Southern California with a group of friends who wore homemade loincloths on the beach and wrote notes in each other’s yearbooks preaching “make love, not war” and “peace, love, granola.” Dad always smells like patchouli and sandalwood…

My free spirit identity carried on until my first suicide attempt during my second year of high school. This was consequently followed by a thirty day stay at an inpatient behavioral health facility for teens. My mental health status had remained rocky since 2008.

When my junior year of high school came around, I returned from summer break with a bang and changed my style and physical presentation to what I believed would qualify as “girly girl.” I got really good at doing makeup, straightened my hair before going out in public– no matter what. I got a lot of attention that year and went through a few boyfriends. My social status rose quite a bit, and I got the full experience of what it’s like to juggle relationships, friendships, school, drama, HORMONES, sex, and everything else that comes with being a teenager. I was doing much better and managing my mental health closely. I was consistent with my new medications and participated in outpatient therapy. My social life was entertaining, but everything was still a secret. I told no one about my mental illness or past suicide attempt. I was beginning to thrive in my environment, I thought, so the world mustn’t find out that I’m crazy.

But, the truth must come out eventually.

I was carrying a giant, invisible backpack full of shame from my depression and anxiety as I walked through the halls of my high school wearing a new outfit and smile on my face. I learned how to perfect my under eye concealer application to hide the purple and puffy bags that lingered from the night before. Eye drops were always on hand for me so I could clear the redness after a cry in the bathroom. The back stall was safe. I could let my anxiety attack run its course unbothered and return to class seemingly fine. I learned to resist my body shakes and voice quivers so that I could be that girl who’s friends with everyone.

When I turned 18, my breakdowns became daily. I didn’t know how much longer I could carry this heavy backpack full of secrets. My back was breaking from the weight. I thought I could hear the cracks spreading from my spine to my skull.

In the last four years I’ve learned a lot about myself, society, and especially mental health. I started reading about the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and about the importance of raising accurate awareness. I watched documentaries about people like me, and I reminisced on the moments I shared in inpatient treatment with my peers. They became the people that I connected with on a deeper level. I had only known them for thirty days, but they had become some of the most important people in my life. They’re the true reason I made it through that terrible month; our vulnerability with one another and the stories we shared together about our struggles bound us together. That honesty and establishment of community was a crucial healing agent in my case. We had secret powers that helped us reach our own unique lights at the end of the tunnel, and none of us even knew.

I thought about those kids every day and began to consider the possibility that people at my school may be going through the same thing we were. Maybe they were also good at putting on a disguise. They could be sitting right next to me in class or meeting with a school counselor like I do. They could be at this very party, dancing and laughing. They could be in my friend group. They could be the people I think I know everything about.

My mom tells me that I have always been an advocate. I stood up for myself and those around me. She told me that the only time she’d receive “in trouble” phone calls from my preschool and my later elementary school was when I punched an older kid in the stomach for bullying one of my classmates. I’ve always known this about myself, but I was never confident enough to intentionally tap into it. I didn’t think I was powerful. 

But then, I realized there is a lot more to me than just my mental illness. It doesn’t rule me. I don’t need to keep playing a role — I could finally navigate the intersection of my identity and mental health.

So, I stopped faking it. I started acting on my impulses rather than strategically planning out my identity as if it were a Pinterest board.

I woke up from a nap one afternoon and got my hair cut. I watched my long, healthy hair fall to the floor. I looked at the dead ends. They had been there in my crises, they had been there in my weakest moments, they had been there through everything. And now, they were idly sitting under my feet, no longer a part of me. As I shed the dead follicles, I began to shed the preoccupation I had with my identity and the shame of my suicide attempt — I got a bob. It felt amazing. I went home and deconstructed my dresser and made a pile of things I would wear but didn’t really like on myself. The suede ankle booties from Nordstrom. The god awful basic grey t-shirt dress that was so short I may have accidentally flashed the entire cafeteria when I sat down. The low-top white converse that I thought made my ankles look weird. The black ripped jeans that were so tight I could literally feel them slowly cut off my circulation while I stood in front of the “twin day” spirit week wall beside my friends who wore the same ones. Most importantly, the push up bras that did nothing but torture my A-cup boobs.

After the demolition of my room, I bagged those and dropped them off at Goodwill. Ironically, Goodwill would become my favorite store. I flourished in my new skin, I felt comfortable, and I didn’t have to convince myself that anything was my “thing” because I didn’t have or need one anymore.

My newfound confidence in my appearance gave me the strength to lay my interpersonal cards on the table. I shared my story with what felt like everyone I knew at a weekend getaway sponsored by my school. I prepared a script so I wouldn’t mess up when I stood in front of a hundred of my peers. I read about a third of it to my audience before I realized I didn’t need to follow a structured layout like I always had.

I knew my story —  the paper didn’t.

I cried publicly and felt no shame in doing so. I soaked in the love from the audience when I finished and realized that some other people were also crying. Did I really do that? Yeah, I fucking did that. And, for the rest of the night, I sat with people who asked to talk with me. I heard multiple stories about their own struggles. I gave a lot of hugs. I thanked God for the opportunity my testimony presented me with, and for the fact that others who likewise felt isolated got to share a bit of their hidden selves with me. We unloaded our backpacks together. Life went on. I finished high school with satisfaction. I graduated from all those years of secrecy and false impressions. I granted myself a little diploma of truth.

But my journey with my mental health didn’t end there. There is no end; there is only forward.

The shift to college has been the most exciting period of my life thus far. It almost feels like a second puberty, except it’s entirely mental and much more definitive. I’m a force to be reckoned with, and I’ll say that now with a prideful glimmer in my eye. 

It’s important to remember, though, that my mental illness hasn’t disappeared. It’s still with me, but it can now be recognized and confronted.

I recently impulsively cut my hair (again) at 2AM on a Wednesday, watched the new dead ends fall to the ground. I have to continue to take care of myself, and that will never change. But, I’m no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed in talking about treatment or sharing updates on my health. I can be the fiery Aries, feminist, and passionately loving person that I am in coexistence with my depression and anxiety. My traumatic experiences have fueled my work in school and in society. Now, I shamelessly use social media as a platform to speak about what I believe in, and I’m grateful for the positive influence it can have on people’s ability to reshape their perspectives, especially about sometimes difficult topics like mental health.

The people who are advocates like myself, the people who may not agree or understand but still wish to expand their knowledge by reading whatever I have to say, the people who may be silently struggling, just as I was: these are the people that need to see my honest words

Yes, I have chronic depression and crippling anxiety. Yes, I have attempted suicide and been sent to a rehabilitation clinic. These are truths of mine. 

No, I am not insane. No, I am not weak. No, I AM NOT my mental illness. I am kind, passionate, persistent, powerful, and an amazing friend and dog mama. These are truths of mine, too.

What are your truths? 

 

Photos/art (in order of appearance) by Nikki Burnett, Dariana Portes, and Emily Millar