Starting when I was about five years old, I used to say to my mom, “I’m sad but I don’t know why.” Even as a child, I recognized the common response to “I feel sad” was “Why?” But what if I didn’t know why? What if that was just how I felt? I can still remember those times so clearly. That feeling of sadness welling up inside me, often seemingly out of nowhere with no real trigger, and the frustration I felt trying to figure out what was causing it. Most of the time, I couldn’t pinpoint any “reason” for my sadness. It was just there. Sometimes it would last for a long time, sometimes it would be gone within minutes. My mom tells me I went through a phase in first grade when I would cry and throw a tantrum every single day. She’d hold me until I regained control.
Some of my most vivid memories from elementary school are of feeling scared about things that, as an adult looking back, most other kids my age probably didn’t even worry about. I started wearing glasses when I was three years old, and I remember every time I would get a new pair of lenses, I would be so nervous the night before going back to school. I thought everyone would make fun of me or say they didn’t like my new glasses or say I looked weird. I remember feeling genuinely terrified to step into my classroom wearing my new glasses. And every time, as you can probably predict reading this, literally nobody noticed or cared. My close friends might notice, and say something like “I like your new glasses!” All my fears were for nothing. The same exact thing would happen when I got a haircut (normally a trim that my dad probably couldn’t even tell the difference after). I can still remember that feeling of panic I experienced every single time, and how I would convince myself that something bad was going to happen. Because I got new glasses or a new haircut.
Fast forward to my freshman year in college. I went through a period where I couldn’t drink alcohol (even just one drink) without ending the night hysterically crying for no apparent reason. Alas, the old “I’m sad but I don’t know why” and regular temper tantrums were back in full force! Aren’t I too old for these? At first I thought the alcohol was to blame, but that didn’t explain the times where I’d go from having a great time with my friends, to feeling irrationally annoyed, or unbearably sad, all while completely sober. Just like I remembered from childhood, these feelings of sadness didn’t appear to have any specific rhyme or reason, and they were often gone in the blink of an eye.
I finally decided to try therapy. The therapist helped me work through and talk about the main things I felt I was struggling with. I had trouble falling asleep at night because I had so much on my mind, I would lay awake worrying about future scenarios, and replaying past events in my head over and over again. Just like I had in elementary school, except instead of worrying about my new glasses or haircut, I was worrying about conversations I’d had or tests I’d taken. I also felt nervous in most social settings, and generally stayed quiet around people I didn’t know. I wanted to be able to put myself out there more, make more friends, and not be so afraid of what other people thought. By the end of my first couple of sessions, the therapist told me she felt I had moderate depression and anxiety, and that I would benefit from medication. The thought of medication scared me, and I decided against it. I didn’t think needed it. Sure, I probably had depression and anxiety, but so many people have it way worse! I had never thought about killing myself, I had never experienced a panic attack. To me this meant it was not bad enough to warrant medication.
After only one semester of therapy, I took a break from it for the rest of college. Partially because I genuinely felt like I was in a better mental place, and partially because it was expensive and I felt bad making my parents pay for it if I didn’t really “need” it. (Note: I’m planning to write a whole blog post about why I think everyone “needs” therapy, so stay tuned for that.) Looking back, I’m not sure that was the right decision. Though I was feeling much better emotionally, and my social anxiety and random crying had all but gone away, without therapy, I found my own ways to fight my demons. And most of them were not healthy or helpful to my healing. I started denying and pushing aside a lot of negative feelings and traumatic experiences I went through, putting them away in a box until I was ready to unpack them. It took me years, up until this past year to be exact, to even start to unpack some of it. I also started some coping mechanisms such as emotional eating, which I am still dealing with to this day. I’m planning to write a separate blog post that goes into that more in detail as well.
Fast forward to my post-grad life, starting about five years ago. I experienced a lot of change all at once: starting my first full-time job, moving out on my own for the first time, and navigating my first serious relationship (part of which was long-distance). Though by most accounts my life was going well, I was suddenly attacked by my old demons. I would get annoyed at my boyfriend for the smallest things, and the annoyance would often escalate into a fit of tears. Unlike my childhood, I could usually pinpoint “why” I felt upset, but the reason didn’t always make sense, and I often felt like my reaction did not line up with the situation. I had moments where I felt like that first grader again, lying on the floor crying, this time with my boyfriend comforting me instead of my mom. I felt totally out of control and at a loss for how to cope with these experiences, and when this pattern continued for several months without getting better, I decided it was time to give therapy another try.
I started seeing my therapist, the same therapist I still see to this day, in the spring of 2016. It’s hard to believe it’s been four years now! What started out as a need to process and try to “fix” the emotional behavior I was experiencing in my relationship, turned into a way to process the countless other aspects of my life, and the many changes I encountered. This therapist has been with me through changes with my jobs, relationship status, living situation, family dynamics, friendships, hobbies, interests. I’ve found it extremely helpful to talk through what I’m feeling and experiencing. There have been times where I wanted to quit therapy because I didn’t feel I needed it, just like I did in college, but I’ve stuck with it and instead of quitting outright, I’ve taken small steps to make changes. While I used to see my therapist once a week, I’ve now cut back to twice a month. Eventually I want to shift to once a month, and then maybe on an as-needed basis.
One thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the past few years, especially when looking back at my childhood and early adolescence at some of what I described in this post, is that my struggle with mental health has not been situational. My mental illnesses have been with me since birth. They’re as much a part of me as the color of my eyes and the freckles on my skin. Feeling sad for no reason and throwing tantrums were possibly the first signs of depression, and my fear and obsession with small changes like new glasses and haircuts was anxiety. Today, I still experience a lot of those same basic feelings and behaviors. There is no cure for them. Small things can feel astronomical to me. I worry about things I shouldn’t worry about. I feel irrationally annoyed and get moody with people I’m close to. I still have moments where I feel like a scared child and I don’t know how to cope. Just yesterday morning, I woke up feeling sad, and, you guessed it: I didn’t know why.
Realizing that my mental health has always been, and will always be, something I have to work on, has been oddly comforting to me. It also allowed me to take a major step in the process of getting myself the help I need: getting on medication. From the first time my first therapist suggested medication, I was terrified of the idea. Maybe it goes back to that fear of the unknown, or fear of change. But about six months ago, I finally found a psychiatrist and started on a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), which helps me manage my depression and anxiety. It hasn’t been a quick fix or a cure-all. Nothing is. But the way I would describe it is a breath of fresh air. A weight lifted off my shoulders. Small changes every day that help me live my life a bit fuller. I’m no longer quite so bogged down by small changes and decisions. I find I can recognize and move past moments of sadness or fear a little easier. When I feel myself getting irritated with someone, I just let myself feel that and let it pass. The best feeling is when something happens and I react in a way that I know I never would have a few years ago.
I’m writing this post for five-year-old Shelly, throwing tantrums every day for no reason. For ten-year-old Shelly, worried everyone would make fun of her new glasses. For 19-year-old Shelly, ending a fun night with her friends by crying herself to sleep. For 23-year-old-Shelly, brave enough to give therapy a second chance. For 26-year-old Shelly, letting go of the fear and starting medication. And lastly, I’m writing this post for myself, right now, as I am, working on bettering myself and becoming the best version of me, while understanding that there was never anything that needed fixing. That I have always been whole exactly how I am. And that I was always, and will always be, worthy of love and of getting the help I need to feel the best I can feel.
If you’re struggling with a mental illness, or you’re unsure if you should start medication or start seeing a therapist, please feel free to leave me a comment, or reach out to me on Instagram @shellyrayblog! I want you to know whatever you are feeling, you are not alone. And you will get through it. ❤️