Coming Out on Mental Health

Self-portrait of Lauren in Autumn 2018.

Self-portrait of Lauren in Autumn 2018.

If you have social media, you might be aware that May is Mental Health Awareness month. I’ve never been one for “awareness months”, just like I’m not one for Valentine’s Day or International Women’s Day in the belief that love and women’s rights should be celebrated equally around the calendar. Yet instead of going against the grain, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to come out about my own mental health, in the hopes to encourage a broader, more collective “coming out” and discourse around the subject. After all, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen my peers bravely navigate their own experiences with anxiety or depression, and it’s helped me immensely to know that I’m not alone.

My mental health coming out process has unfolded gradually over the course of the last eighteen years. I still struggle to come to terms with how much my mental health issues have, or haven’t, been a part of my life and identity. I don’t want my diagnoses to have a role in anyone’s professional or romantic judgments of me. But is silencing my own journey and experiences actually helping to reduce the stigma around discussing mental health? What if someone else needs to hear my story, so that their own feels less isolating? What if I can be outwardly anxious and depressed at times and still be lovable? These are the questions that I’ve always asked and which I’m finally ready to answer.

At some point in my early childhood, I knew something wasn’t right. I had my first panic attack seemingly out of the blue at ten years old. I was being generously spoiled at the mall by my aunt and uncle when suddenly I felt an urgent need to escape — my heart started pounding, I couldn’t catch my breath and I needed my parents or a hospital amidst a fleeting battle to stay alive. Over the next few months, these unexpected and terrifying moments kept happening. (The worst thing about panic attacks is that they usually come in cycles…once you have one, the anticipation and fear of a follow-up makes it more likely to happen.) I spent a long summer stuck at home, afraid to go so far as my own backyard. For a while, the only way I would go to elementary school was if my mother sat in the hallway outside of my classroom. (And my elementary school was across the street from my house). I would sometimes run out of class gasping for air and crying because my chest felt like it was caving in. There was no explanation — I had friends, I liked my teacher, and it wasn’t an academic problem; in fact, I was supposedly “gifted”. I hadn’t suffered any immediate trauma. My first experience with panic disorder (my eventual diagnosis) was physical rather than mental. However, I’ve learned that you can’t separate the body from the mind. I started to fear any places or contexts where these physical symptoms could recur. I developed obsessive thoughts and fears, as well as agoraphobia. Tell ten- or eleven- or twelve- year old Lauren that she would move far away to college and then live abroad for over five years and she would have laughed in your face with disbelief!

It took years of therapy and medication for the slightest twinge of anxiety not to spiral into a full-blown panic attack. Gradually, through a variety of medication and therapy, I’ve learned to generally manage these periods which have waxed and waned. If there is any upside to anxiety or depression, it’s that the longer I’ve lived with this, the more I’ve normalized it. It doesn’t make those episodes suck less, but if this has happened ten, twenty, thirty times before and I’ve survived it, odds are I’ll make it another day. This panic attack won’t kill me, because the others didn’t. I don’t actually want to die, because I’ve felt the lowest of lows and still bounced back to see beauty. In some ways, I’m lucky because I could put a name on these feelings longer than many of my peers who have had the same experiences but only come to terms with them in their twenties or later.

Because I’m stubborn, I have always tried to confront my fears. Despite a deep fear of public performance and pre-show panic attacks, I starred in my high school musicals and for a while hoped to pursue a career in acting. My peers knew to leave me in a corner and let me talk myself down from the terror. I always managed to get onstage and do it. In my late teens, one of my worst panic attacks happened on a plane. My arms went numb and my head felt electric and tunnel vision crept in; I begged the crew to turn back on the runway. When I decided to move abroad, those close to me wondered how I’d manage the long flights. I still cry in airports before almost every international flight, but the only cure I’ve found for this fear is to face it head on, without a choice. (And as a reminder that it gets better, a couple of months ago, I had a personal milestone — my first flight in over six years where I didn’t need to take a Xanax!) In moving to France, I was frighteningly aware of the distance between me and my loved ones. What if I needed help? Luckily I’ve been able to find a good balance between independently handling “my shit,” and reaching out to the friends and support network I’ve made here when I really need it.

The hard part about owning my diagnoses is how antithetical they feel to my core personality. Friends and acquaintances outside of my immediate circle might even be surprised in reading or learning that I’ve lived with this. I don’t have the makings of a depressed or anxious person, I tell myself. I mean, I’m a Sagittarius! I’ve always been curious and spontaneous and taken leaps of faith in the genuine comfort that the universe will provide. I know the world is inherently a good place and that life is full of beautiful experiences worth living and wonderful people worth meeting. When I was born, my parents remind me that I barely cried — instead, I opened my eyes right away and looked around the hospital room, which earned me the nickname “Bright Eyes” by the nurses on the ward. I have a wealth of ideas of things I want to create and places I want to go and a drive to find a purpose. I am a “yes” person. Should we jump into that river naked? Yes! Take that trip? Yes! Commit to that project? In many situations, high bets are I’m the first person to say yes. Therefore, it’s taken me awhile to get over the guilt of saying no, especially when the person on the receiving end of the “no” is someone I care deeply about. But for my physical and mental health, it has become essential to say no to extra work that isn’t worth my time, or to friends who don’t or can’t understand that if I cancel, it’s usually for a reason that’s essential to my well-being. If this resonates with you, please remember that saying “no” from time to time doesn’t make you a less fun, less motivated person.

One of the reasons mental health disorders can create such a sense of shame is because often there is a glaring gap between who we feel we are and who we want to be. In short, we consider our “potential” on the scale of a neurotypical person, and evaluate all the ways we aren’t adding up. My brother, who is bipolar and struggles with additional physical health issues, understands this as well. We often discuss how we mourn the loss of all the projects we haven’t completed or all the roles we haven’t been able to fill because of how carefully we have to manage our brains and bodies. As creative people, it can hurt to feel like we aren’t making an impact or being heard on the larger scale that we would like. The capitalist system and our obsession with productivity can feel especially toxic for anyone who struggles with a mental or physical disorder.

I’m embarrassed to even look back at my worst moments. An adult fetaling in an airport bathroom before a flight, sobbing like a child and calling her mother, cringe-worthy journal entries with “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” written out in shaky hand for pages at a time. I understand why people like Robin Williams suffered in silence for so long. Depression is so not them. It is not what they are known for, or what they want others to see. Whenever I go through a bad bout of depression, I feel the need to hold it up close to some light — ask why, ask how I can fix it, ask how I got here. There are always good times…months, years even…and something triggers it and it storms back in like wind through a screen door. Everything about depression seems to have already been said, but what I will never get over is the guilt. There’s the guilt of feeling depressed or anxious when other people have suffered actual, or worse, trauma. The guilt of knowing you have so many people who love you, who do their best to pull you up, who would be ruined if they knew how you wanted to, or did, treat yourself. The guilt of being “too heavy” for your friends. The guilt of wondering if this is what’s holding back your romantic relationships. The guilt of having to perform happiness, or simply being okay, to a partner. The guilt of doing things and being places others envy and not feeling the joy that they might, and thus as you should. The guilt of underestimating the pain of friends or family who are too fighting these demons when you are in your own period of remission, and you start giving the same advice (tea, yoga, meditation, herbs, ‘forcing’ oneself to get out…) that you detest receiving because when it’s good, it’s good, and it’s almost like you forget that this could happen to you again!

My spontaneity or what may look like self-indulgence to outside observers is really just a way to tell myself that if I feel partially okay enough to take this trip, or make this walk, then I deserve this, because there have been moments when I haven’t. I have to do the things that make me happy now. If not now, when?

I encourage you to reflect on your own journey and experiences with mental health — if you're ready to come out about it, please know that you're not alone. You can be a part of this movement of openness and community. Let’s building an army of support, from the famous to the unknown, to shatter the stigma and continue to grow together.