Awareness vs. Wallowing [Mental Health Blog]

Published on my mental health and recovery blog.


These last few weeks have been about me taking the first faltering steps out of depression. And I’ve already written about how those steps are frustrating, slow and often involve just as many steps back as forward. That’s still the reality. While I haven’t come anywhere near close to how I felt at my worst, I still spend most of my time below what I’ve identified as my “normal” — much less thriving. I feel capable of getting basic things done (self-care, school, communication, etc.). But those things are still often a struggle, and I almost always do them despite lacking motivation.  My moods are much more stable than they had been, and I find myself more and more genuinely enjoying the pleasant things in my life. But I still can’t think about my life or my future for more than a few minutes without triggering myself.

But I have had another good day. Another day where I felt normal, energetic, happy. Where I had motivation and ideas and clear thoughts. I found myself walking back from the subway actually dancing along to the music I was listening to, looking around at the people walking past me like they were interesting, complex, probably not malicious fellow human beings. Like they might actually pertain to me and be worth meeting. I thought about projects I wanted to work on, books I wanted to read and stories I wanted to write. I thought about the future and felt like I could (and would, and wanted to) accomplish anything.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget what all of that feels like after even a short time being depressed.

Of course, that mood didn’t last. But it left me feeling a little better than before and with a clearer picture of what I’m working toward in this recovery effort. It was a nice reminder that what I’m feeling right now isn’t who I am.


It’s time to get up 

And it did something else even more important. It made me realize that it’s time to get my life going again, even if that means starting at a slower pace than I’m used to. See, I had put everything I could on hold once I realized how hard recovery would be. Over the summer, I finally started to see how I had used work and responsibility to enable my denial. As long as I was throwing everything I had into a job, a leadership role, various projects, etc. I could push away the depression and anxiety. It was like being in crisis mode 24/7, and my mind had realized early on that I do well in a crisis. I’m allowed to push away my emotions in crisis. Who would expect anything different?

Once I realized this disassociation from my emotions was a big part of my mental illness, I knew I needed to disconnect from my usual coping mechanism that relied on that disassociation. Basically, I needed to be depressed. To let myself be depressed and feel unpleasant things and take time to take care of myself and stop running around trying so hard to healthy and functional on the outside while I was hurting on the inside.

That was, and still is, true. But these coping mechanism have been with me since adolescence. They were literally the way I survived that part of my life. They are a fundamental part of the identity I’ve developed, and when they’re happening, they’ve practically invisible to me. The only reason I could see them in the first place was because I had a breakdown big enough to force me to be depressed long enough to look inward and see the clockwork.

So what did I do? I cut out everything I thought would let me fall back into those habits. I took a break from activism and even partially stopped reading the news. I was lucky enough to have some time before I needed to find a job, so I decided to take this semester off. I didn’t look for groups to join on campus, I didn’t look at internship offerings (because this is DC, and if I looked, I would find one I couldn’t refuse). Even school ended up not being quite the challenge I expected. I went from a full sprint to a nap over the course of a month.

You can probably already see where this is going. By trying not to listen to the impulses in my head that want to keep me in denial about my depression and disassociated from my emotions, I had inadvertently given my depression everything it wanted. I was trapped at home, often alone given my roommate’s schedule, watching TV, occasionally reading philosophy and trying really hard to remember to shower and eat. As much as I do need more rest, downtime and self-care than before my depression, this lifestyle is the opposite of conducive to recovery.

And those two good days I’ve had? Both came on my one day a week I have class. The day I have to get up, go be around other people, accomplish something and feel smart. Obviously, not a coincidence.


Finding a balance

So when an opportunity to apply for an internship practically fell in my lap (thank you universe, for speaking loudly enough that even I have to listen), I took it. I’m interviewing sometime this week for a part time internship at a housing equality organization.

But as sure as I am that this is the right step, a funny thing has happened as my depression has slowly and unevenly gotten better: My anxiety has gotten worse. At the worst point in my depression, my anxiety was completely gone. The week or so, I haven’t gone a day without taking one of my anti-anxiety meds. And they freak me out a little, so I only take them when it’s really necessary. A lot of this anxiety is focused around this internship and around my other responsibilities.

What I’m moving too fast? What I’ve lost my ability to do, well, anything since my depression started? What I have a significant relapse? Can I go and do a job while I feel like that? Can I face the idea of not being able to do my best work? What if I have to take a day off because of my mental illness? Something that should be so easy (who wouldn’t take a day off for a cold?) sounds like a cardinal sin to my ears.

What if I never get over this incredible flutter of fear every time I have to respond to a damned email?

Fear of not being able to achieve something I want (or, worse, not being able to trust that I will continue to even want it) is not something I’ve had to deal with before. And all the while I know I need to be on the look out for these old habits that I’m not completely sure how to recognize. So I need to trust myself to succeed, but do so in a way that’s different from everything I’ve done before.

That’s the balancing act I’m dealing with right now. But I’m committed to biting the bullet and going for this internship. I think this may be one thing you can only learn through experience.

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