Losing myself to find myself
Mental health issues are a silent kind of suffering. They creep in slowly and wreak havoc on your health in ways you’d never imagined were possible until you look back later.
I have watched mental illness zap the spark from many friends and several loved ones. Yet I didn’t notice the tentacles that creeped into my life—slowly and then all at once.
It took three years for me to realize I no longer recognized many parts of myself. And living through three major stress events that individually would break the average person – back to back to back.
How I slowly lost myself
On Halloween, my Dad had a freak accident and fell in the middle of the night, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury. For several weeks, we weren’t sure if he’d wake up, remember who we are, or recall his goofy nicknames for us. And then he did. As he recovered, I kept my distance from the too-bright, too-loud hospital room. I’d thrown myself into my job that I loved and had barely had for a year, because I thought that if I didn’t, I would break.
But we all broke in those short weeks, in our own ways—I know that now.
A five-month blur later—February—he was home. He was himself again, even working at his old job, and the dust had settled. I tried to forget. My boyfriend suggested I talk to someone. I brushed it off. “Life is finally normal again,” I said. “I’m fine.”
I sat on the sideline as alcohol stole someone I’m close to, and made her into someone I no longer recognized. We were pulled into her orbit, over and over again. We told her we love her and begged her to get help. But you can’t make an adult in pain change their collision course. They have to forge their path themselves. Instead, we sat on the rollercoaster for several painful years until she found her peace again.
Again, the dust settled and I threw myself into work, because if I couldn’t fix her, then at least I could not fail there. But rumbling below the surface, I was residually angry. So, so angry, almost all the time.
My then-fiancé tossed out that maybe talking things through with someone would help. I brushed it off. “It will just take time,” I said. “I’m fine.”
Amidst this chaos, I went through major changes at work. My role on our team has changed once for every year I’ve worked at my company (five). But this time, I got promoted into a new role while adjusting to a new boss with great intent but a vastly different workstyle than mine. At home, my fiance and I started planning a wedding (fun, but stressful) and threw in building a house for good measure (again, fun, but stressful).
Suddenly, I was 25 and married and my life was everything that younger me imagined it could be by this age, and isn’t it funny that I didn’t have a plan but things went as planned anyway?
And yet, already, I was slowly becoming undone. Many smaller, day to day moments that had been easily overshadowed by the big, easily explainable events slowly came out of the shadows, where they had been for far longer than I realized.
We had a work happy hour at a great local restaurant. It was 4 p.m. on a Thursday and the parking lot was full. I panicked, because driving makes me anxious in a way that consumes me sometimes. I turned around, texted my boss that I was going to finish up some work at home after all, and drove home to sign back online.
I finally got in for a visit with the neurologist I’d been waitlisted with for nine months. I got a very validating diagnosis of chronic migraines—one I’ve always suspected, but never confirmed. By then I was having 15+ headache/migraine days per week. Since January, I was not sure how I managed to function and be productive at work, but miraculously I was. But I was tired all the time. I thought for a fleeting moment that talking to someone might help, but I told myself I needed to get my migraines under control before I would have the energy to deal with that.
I found my people in a group of kind fellow Iowa bookworms. I counted down the days until our in-person meetup. Then I couldn’t get in my car and drive there when the day arrived because I was too anxious to connect or break into an already close-knit (but so, so friendly) group.
My husband needed to take my car to drive to his parents—an hour away, down winding country roads. It has 4-wheel drive so it’s safer and I knew that. But I had plans with a friend and the thought of driving his car made me so anxious I started a pointless argument instead of agreeing to what I knew, in some small part of myself, was the most logical solution. I moved my plans to a different day and then lost my mind when he told me he never confirmed he was going and changed his mind, then an hour later decided to go again. I made him take my car, and I stayed home.
I woke up one morning and was hit with the realization that I couldn’t remember the last time I woke up to an alarm on time and hopped right out of bed. Couldn’t recall when I didn’t hit snooze because I dreaded going to a job that I loved, because anxiety manifests in countless ways. “I’m not a morning person.” “I’m just exhausted from the chronic migraines.” It was easier to convince myself of these things, instead of the obvious. Still, I got up and went to work.
I was off all day. I got in the car to drive home and I thought about the number of times I’d sat in our living room and cried because I’m just so exhausted. All the time. I didn’t recognize this version of myself. I called my husband, needing to share these realizations, even though he already knew and had for some time. He’d tried to provide an olive branch I could not pick up, but had always watched and waited.
Again, he said, “Maybe you should talk to someone.” It wasn’t a demand (though it should’ve been). It was a gentle nudge again, because he’s endlessly patient in almost every moment, even though I am not.
This time, I accepted that maybe he was right. I recognized that I had used my migraines as an excuse for far too long. We shelved the conversation because I was so, so tired, but I committed to coming back to it the next day.
And then it was the next day. I got lunch with a former coworker I hadn’t seen in months. She asked me how I’d been and I started crying in the middle of a food court. And then I learned that likely almost everyone I know has needed extra support at some point. She shared her experience and some recommendations, if I wanted them. I did want them. I went home to research and immediately was overwhelmed.
So I reached out to my best friend, because she is my person and I needed her in my corner. I told her I don’t think I’ve been myself in two years and was planning to find a therapist, because I could no longer pretend that I could do this on my own. I knew this was not a healthy way to live; it wasn’t fair to myself or my husband, to be checked out and completely overwhelmed 24/7.
I asked her some questions about the process of therapy because I was anxious about that too, and she’d been down that road before. I reached out to another friend for the same reason and the coworkers I’m closest to, just in case I needed an army (I did. We all do.).
I am surprised, again and again, that even the strongest people that I admire the most in life have had their own mental health journey. Each of them has come out stronger for having taken the step to fight this battle. I tucked away the thought that maybe I could too.
I found myself again
I spent days researching options, reading bios, and trying to judge from a few paragraphs on the internet who might be a good fit for me. I was told finding a therapist is a lot like dating, but I still hoped to find my type my perfect match on the first try. Finally, I settled on a couple of options and the next day, one of my top choices sent me an email– I didn’t even have to call her. Her name is Jennifer, and she had open evening hours. I set up an appointment for her earliest opening the following week.
I made it through the first week. And then the second. Jennifer asked a lot of thought-provoking questions, but my favorite was “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” because when you boil that down, things are a lot more manageable.
I noticed that just the act of admitting I needed help took a huge weight off my shoulders. I started to feel like there were a lot of awkward silences where I didn’t know what to say, even though I knew there was much more work to do. I asked her what the right way to do this is—I worried I wasn’t doing it “right.” We spent a lot of time talking about perfectionism, and me feeling the need to be in control all the time–many, many things clicked.
I learned a lot about self-talk and paying attention to the thoughts running through my head. Jennifer asked me if I’ve considered letting go of aspects of my personality that cause me stress. I didn’t think that was a thing that people could do. I told her I don’t want to change things that enable me to perform well at work, but I was curious enough to try some things if they would serve me well.
We made a list of small steps I could take to try and decrease some of the easily controllable stress in my life—sleeping better, eating better, exercising. I failed on many of those accounts (it’s still a work in progress) but at least I have a plan that I could execute on. We talked about things I can do when I’m feeling extra irritable or anxious andI kept working on self-talk.
I learned many more interesting questions to ask myself. I started to get comfortable with the idea of shifting my own priorities/expectations when they don’t serve my stress well. I learn more thought provoking questions. My new favorite became “What am I doing this for? What am I avoiding by doing this? What’s good enough?”
I learned that while I can’t control the thoughts that flow in and out of my head, I can let logic be a stronger force. This one is tough. When I get angry or stressed, I get very irrational, very quickly, and even calm heads can’t prevail over my own. I’m learning to tell myself, “I don’t need to think about this right now,” and “I don’t have control over this, but everyone is fine, and everyone is safe.” I accept that those worried thoughts can float right out. And this works, sometimes.
I learned to tell my husband “I’ve reached my limit on people, and it will pass” when I’m feeling exhausted and stressed from forcing my introverted self to be an extrovert all day. I don’t remember to do this often enough, but it’s a start.
We talked a lot about my anxiety around our upcoming trip to London, my first trip out of the country. We broke down everything into “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Funnily enough—almost every single one of these worst things did happen. Our first flight was cancelled. Our second flight was delayed until it, too, was cancelled, after sitting on the plane for five hours. For once, I was mostly calm in the face of all of this, minus one small moment toward the end of a never-ending day.
I am still a work in progress, but aren’t we all? Mostly, I feel like “me” again. I have been stuck in my home for almost 70 days thanks to COVID-19. But I am doing better than most people. I have the privilege to work remotely, the ability to reasonably stock up on groceries, and the luxury of only being stuck here with my husband (also working remotely) and a Jack Russell terrier (some days, that doesn’t feel lucky). I check in with myself regularly. I’m closely monitoring my moods these days, just in case I need a virtual therapy appointment as this time stretches on and on and on. I start to get creative writing ideas again—something I haven’t had in a meaningful way in five years.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve already realized: this journey has been a long one. One that I never would have embarked upon if so many people I’m close to hadn’t been willing to share their own with me. One that continues, day by day, and will continue—likely forever.
No matter where you are on this journey of your own, know that I’m in this with you. As many have said lately, we’re in the same sea, but we’re in vastly different boats. I’m thinking of you. I’m cheering you on. I’m here for you, and I believe that you can navigate whatever waves you’re facing, too.
Mental Health Resources
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline
- Veterans Crisis Line
- The American Institute of Stress
- National Domestic Violence Hotline