By Julia K. Agresto
I look in the mirror. My face is foreign, my eyes sullen. My skin is not my own. I am living with a stranger, and the stranger is me.
You’ll feel better tomorrow, I tell myself. You’ll be fine. Tomorrow becomes today, and I still feel the same. I am not better. I am not fine.
I don’t know who I am anymore. I have found myself in the grips of anxiety and depression, the result of a recent string of events – most notably, losing my job – and quite possibly also the culmination of a long series of losses and letdowns, whether of my own volition or not.
I never expected to be single, living alone and unemployed in my mid 20’s, collapsing under the weight of everything that has gone wrong, every personal failure, real or imagined. I see photos on social media of friends and others who appear to be having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, I can barely get out of bed or cook myself a meal, and most of them don’t even seem to notice or care.
Some mornings I wake up, if I’ve even slept, and half expect to jump out of bed with the vigor of my old self. Good as new, miraculously cured, as if the darkness of night carried away all the hurt and the morning light replaced it with healing.
Some nights I close my eyes and think how it would feel to be someone else, even for an hour. To feel whole again. To be able to piece myself together like a jigsaw puzzle until I was complete, a nice coherent picture to hang on the wall. I know this is irrational. I am broken, at least for now. There will be no neat, logical rearranging of my pieces. There is no amount of glue that can hold me together.
I go through the motions as best I can. Even the simple ones feel impossible. I barely eat or sleep. I lose weight, and lose interest in anything and everything I once cared about. I wonder how and when I became so wrecked. How did this happen? The answer never comes. It just happened. That’s the most I can manage. It’s not enough, but it has to be. At least for now.
Many nights I sit frozen, alone in the dark, terrified. The darkness is my keeper now and if I move, if I make myself known, if I try to become too big, it will see me. It will smell my fear and my feigned courage and knock me down again. So I stay small.
Then one day, somehow, the fog begins to lift. I can’t pinpoint exactly how or when it happens, but I slowly start to feel pieces of myself come back to me. I start enjoying things again, even if only slightly. A sunny day, a cup of tea, a warm breeze. I feel less indifferent. These are small victories. It is not instant, but rather a gradual return to my past state of being. It feels uncomfortable, like trying to squeeze into too-small clothing. As if I’ve shed a skin and now am trying to get back inside of it. And then it feels familiar, like returning home after a tiresome journey.
Those days were long, exacting, their edges sharp. I would not wish that pain on my worst enemy. I would shield even the most unholy person from it. There was nothing easy about it. There was no miracle remedy, in pill form or otherwise. Make no mistake, I fought my way back to the light, crawling on hands and knees, bruised, bleeding. The light came in small, barely tangible fragments. The darkness still did its best to extinguish it. Then, eventually, it was gone.
Depression and anxiety are incredibly isolating. It’s a vicious cycle because you want nothing more than to keep yourself hidden, and yet you so desperately need the support and encouragement of others if there is to be any hope of coming out on the other side. I learned this the hard way. I also learned how many other people have experienced what I went through, or something similar. But there is so much shame, so much fear of sharing this deeply personal and painful part of ourselves, that oftentimes it gets banished to that dark corner where we send all of the things we don’t want to see or feel or look at ever again. An eternal time-out. It’s easier that way.
The problem is, for better or worse, like it or not, this experience is part of me. Does it define who I am? No. But it is a small piece of my big story, and to omit it would be to tell an incomplete tale. It has its place and that’s where I keep it. I don’t let it run the show. But acknowledging that it happened gives it some meaning, talking about it helps others who are struggling, and recognizing how I got through it and came out stronger makes me feel like it wasn’t all a fruitless ordeal.
What I want for anyone reading this to realize is this one simple truth: you are not alone. There are people who care and want to help. I realize that all sounds like some nonsense recycled cliché, but it’s not. You aren’t the only person who has ever been where you are, nor are you the last person who will stand in the place that you’re in. To be human is to suffer. To conquer suffering makes us more resilient. You just have to get through the darkness. I’m proof that it can be done.
Those days were hell. These days are light. I couldn’t get here without first being there.
Somehow I found myself again. Somehow I found more than was there before. Somehow I gleaned a lesson from all the pain, even if it was buried deep and had to be sought out and excavated and dusted off. We can never stop fighting, no matter how futile it seems, no matter how many battles we lose along the way. We never know when we will win the war.