A couple nights ago, I had a really cryptic dream: I rammed into Selena Gomez’s car in a grocery-store parking lot. Why it was Selena was unclear, but I ran into the store to find refuge. Once inside, I knocked down all the displays and panic-attacked my way through the aisles, unsure of why I was there or what I was looking for. When I eventually made my way back to the parking lot, my own car was flipped upside-down. To be clear, I don’t think Selena did the car-flipping, but the result was the same nonetheless.
I woke up in the darkness, out of breath. I anticipated the crazy scene to continue in the faint light of my alarm clock, which read 3:03 a.m. I stayed up for about an hour, my mind racing to make sense of such a stupid dream. I realized that something had clicked in my brain during this REM narrative, something so telling about my recent feelings. My negative self-talk that insists everything I touch breaks or suddenly goes wrong shone through in this dream, as did my internal instinct to run away from the problem at hand, which only amplified my fears.
For the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with a weird combination of loss and light. One of my best friends and roommates is moving out, which feels personal, although I know it’s not. Trump’s nearing inauguration scares me more than I thought possible. And I’m simply nervous about starting my new spring semester classes.
But at the same time, I just traveled with my boyfriend and his family, and celebrated my 19th birthday, and found myself surrounded throughout by so much generosity and love. The good times have been so good, but my brain still categorizes them as less important than the sadness and negativity that are also present.
I have previously been diagnosed with an anxiety-and-panic disorder (anxiety and depression usually come in tandem, just for funsies). When I was a sophomore in high school, I began having constant panic attacks. I wouldn't go longer than an hour or two without the lingering threat of vomiting, passing out, crying my eyes out, and/or forgetting to breathe. I vividly remember the day I was diagnosed: I had to identify things that triggered me and things that brought me down from the most high-strung moments of my life. The official diagnosis was frightening, but it was also so relieving to know what was going on with me, and that I had the capability to reduce its power.
I’m now in therapy, take Prozac, and am a coping-strategy junkie. I feel incomplete without a guided meditation every evening, and adult coloring books catch my attention every time I go to Target. Therapy has taught me how to change my thinking patterns, and I have been able to decrease my medicinal intake by developing these strengths.
But the reality is that these feelings will never totally go away. I am still over-empathetic and have trouble embracing relationships without wondering how my brain will react. I spend every day reciting reminders to myself rather than living in the moment. It feels like I have to try 10 times harder than “normal people” at everything. My process of coping continues to take an immense amount of effort on a day-to-day basis. Tucking myself into bed every night simultaneously feels like a great accomplishment and a nightmare. Although I'm proud to have made it through the day, I know I’ll have to wake up and do it all over again, and find myself wishing for a different body and mind each morning.
Recently I have noticed that my mental health wavers in the fall and winter — as it does for approximately 5 percent of all Americans. I have not been officially diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is more common among women and presents itself with similar symptoms to depression, such as hopelessness, loss or gain of appetite, sleep problems, mood changes, and more. But in hindsight, I have probably been suffering from SAD since I was diagnosed with anxiety. The holidays have always felt special and charming, but something about them also always seems empty, wasteful, and maddening. Returning to school from winter break is always painful and anxiety-inducing; I experience a week of tight-chested apprehension. I know the new semester won’t be that bad, but still, I worry. No matter the amount of meditation, vitamin D exposure, and physical activity, I know I will still have to stand up and fight for my happiness every winter.
So that’s what I’ll continue to do.
The secret, I’ve found, is to tell myself that this fight is ultimately good for me. If I don’t fight, I will never get back up. And it’s always worth getting back up. So I am making the following plans for 2017.
1. I will take care of my body.
It’s hard to dedicate time to treating my mind and body the way they deserve, but this semester I plan to set up a weekly schedule of exercise and eating right. This includes morning stretches, yoga routines, and guided meditations. I hope to improve on putting myself before “success.”
2. I will demand what I’m worth.
At 19, I have written and published essays and articles for some great publications. But I have never gotten paid. I am all for exposure and experience, but after a semester of college tuition, I am more aware of the value of a dollar than ever. So while I will continue to write what I want to write, I know as I progress in my degree and my career that money will be a factor, and that I should ask for what I’m worth.
3. I will put my relationships before numbers.
I have always had a problem making and maintaining female friends. I am a feminist to my core, and the essence of girl power illuminates almost every factor of my life. And yet I struggle to really click with other girls. My boyfriend is my best friend and my go-to adventure buddy, but he doesn’t want to see La La Land or get mani-pedis. We talk about life, but not in the way women do. I have had many incredible female friendships through the years, but I am ready for my Ann Perkins. I am ready to dedicate more time and effort to developing friendships before I allow GPAs or pageviews to dominate my future.
4. I will create authentically.
Although I don’t tend to struggle with this one, my art and my writing accounts for a lot of my emotional strength, and I refuse to let that fall away because of my mental illness. I hope to improve in all areas of writing, from technical things like grammar to transparent originality in my work.
5. I will love the things I love with passion and without judgment.
Whether this means reinforcing my romantic relationship or keeping up with my Doug the Pug social-media notifications, I will love hard. The things that make me happy and keep me afloat are so good and so pure, and I will allow the joy they create to take up more space in my heart than any judgment or doubt.
Despite these plans, and knowing that mental illness doesn’t go away, I will probably mess up a lot in 2017. I’ll probably feel really shitty about it, too, and will have nightmares about it (though, god willing, I won’t ram into another young celebrity's car). Even so, through all the ups and downs, I’ll remember that I'm always lucky to wake to a new morning, another chance to win the battle.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
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