The Journey to Mental Health

Photography by    Kenya Meon

Photography by Kenya Meon

Still in his work clothes, Jeremiah curls his body around my own. The soft light indicates early afternoon; the sheets, soaked through with sweat, mark the hours. Jeremiah’s arms wrap tightly across my chest and his lips graze the back of my neck; he rocks me gently — “I love you. I’m here.” My body shudders, excavating the remaining fragments of half-choked sobs and panic and breathlessness.

“I don’t want to go home yet,” I say, but it’s already decided. It’s home or the hospital. Hours ago, through running snot and sobs, I had picked home.

Later, Jeremiah would help me pack a suitcase. Months after, he admitted that this breaking point had been a blessing. He was glad I had gotten help; he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep me afloat.

Until this year, I considered my anxiety a hidden (albeit often out of control) superpower.

In the beginning, my Mom would playfully joke with her friends that she never had to remind me to do my homework — I couldn’t not do it. Even amongst my earliest memories, I had always nurtured an unyielding, self-induced pressure to achieve, no matter the cost.

By the time I got to high school, my Mom started explicitly telling me to “just get a C.” She’d watch me stress over my math assignments, determined to “get it” — even if it was clear I should wait to meet with a teacher — or insist on perfecting an essay days before it was due. By my senior year, I was the school president and head of my school’s PeaceJam chapter, a 3-season athlete, a member of both my church and school choir, a volunteer with the Special Olympics of Rhode Island, and had been awarded a highly solicited scholarship that covered my tuition, books and a summer trip to Costa Rica. I told myself that the self-induced pressure that haunted me should only be considered a positive attribute; after all, look at how far it had gotten me.

Post high school graduation, my Mom strongly encouraged me to take a gap year, but I refused. I didn’t want to take a break and “lose momentum.” So instead, I immediately started my freshman year of college, and then transferred to Brown University, graduated Cum Laude, and started my first job at a top-tier NYC marketing agency only 3 weeks post-grad. My Mom continued to worry that I wasn’t resting— that I needed to take care of myself — but I couldn’t. Or insisted that I couldn’t. If I wasn’t working to my full capacity, I’d start to feel more anxious than I already felt. I told myself that I was most successful under extreme pressure; that this lifelong undercurrent of severe anxiety was a blessing rather than a curse.

For a long time, I justified my late nights, tears, insomnia and unyielding stress with societal measures of “success.” I received raises and accolades, positive client feedback, thank-you notes from co-workers and general positive feedback. On the outside, I had it all together — a winning smile, upbeat and friendly personality, and a high-salary. But on the inside, untreated, my anxiety slowly began to morph into something beyond what I could handle.

Last year, Jeremiah and I moved to Atlanta to start a life together. The turbulence of the move (or more, 3 moves when you consider the multiple apartments), an entirely new state, culture, and job, distance from friends and family, and a lack of foundation ignited a depression. Initially, I was embarrassed to admit the depths of my sadness, but eventually, the coupling of anxiety and depression became debilitating. I found myself crying about “nothing”and unable to get out of bed or shower or take care of myself. My job demanded my full energy and focus, yet I could barely operate. The ever-present undercurrent of anxiety and self-induced pressure began to send me into spirals of panic. While I kept it together on the outside, every night I returned home depleted with only enough energy left to sleep.

And so in February, I left my job. In fact, I left the marketing industry altogether. It wasn’t serving me, it wasn’t where I wanted to be, and it was time to reevaluate everything — my mental health included. Jeremiah helped to find me a therapist, I was diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) & Depression, I started treatment (yes, including medication), and went home for a few weeks. I learned that reaching out for help is OK. That taking medication is OK. That sadness is temporary. That being healthy takes hard work and commitment. That I don’t have to measure myself solely against outside standards of success.

Today, even with all of my day-to-day worries, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. (Yeah, it’s that serious.) I took the time re-evaluate everything I had once considered fact, and learned so many beautiful things about myself and what self-care looks like. I’ve learned that it’s time for a career shift that focuses on fulfilling, passion-driven work, where my standards of success are based on uplifting others (my community, children, etc.) rather than a corporate entity. I’ve learned that the lifelong undercurrent of pressure I struggled with can be reformatted into positivity and excitement. I’ve learned that caring for oneself is a priority.

I stir awake in the early morning’s light. Jeremiah is still asleep, fully buried beneath the covers, his face turned away from the window. Soundlessly, I slip from bed and move toward our back porch, which is enshrouded by white curtains and plants. This is where I go when I wake up with anxiety. Sliding the glass door aside, I step onto the porch barefoot and let the morning dew soak the soles of my feet. I sit, motionlessly, and look up into the sky. I take deep breaths. I pinch the skin between my thumb and pointer finger — a centering technique that I learned in therapy — and list what I see, hear and feel. Eventually, my breathing becomes steady, and the expanse of the day before me feels full of possibility.

Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better.

Today is World Mental Health Day. I hope that by sharing my own story, it encourages you to take the steps you need to seek help and/or begin your own journey of healing. If you need to seek immediate, life-saving help, I encourage you to call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or text “CONNECT” to The Crisis Text Line (741741) to speak to a professional.