As a hiker, I was always told that it’s not the mountain ahead that wears you out, it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. When it comes to my mental health journey, I’ve had very sandy shoes. The overwhelming feeling of the Sahara Desert in my boots, the progressive sinking into quicksand so deep that I couldn’t even see the mountain ahead, the feeling that I just wanted every grain of sand to bury me because I was tired of fighting.
Throughout my life, I’ve been praised for being a chronically positive and optimistic person. Finding the ‘good’ in every situation was second nature to me. This toxic positivity caused me to avoid allowing myself to fully experience any so-called negative emotions. Anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief had been shoved under the rug. Instead, I replaced those emotions with surface-level happy emotions. That was the easier thing to do, after all. By avoiding these painful emotions, I was failing to fully experience reality of the situation. I wasn’t allowing myself to sit with my emotions, both positive and negative. I wasn’t letting myself realize that it’s okay not to be okay.
Ten years ago, I was hit with crippling depression. The thought of suicide was my daily companion. I felt hopeless and had no energy to move forward. I didn’t want to burden anyone else with my problems, so I kept them buried behind my seemingly permanent smile. I figured I would just take myself out of the equation and everyone else’s life could go on as normal. Lucky for me, I had loved ones who saw my smile break and they helped me change my plans. I was too deep in the dark sand-filled hole to recognize this in myself. I opened up to those close to me, and unloaded the burden I had been carrying. I said for the first time out loud “I wanted to die”. This conversation changed my life. It saved my life. It forced me to come face-to-face with myself. No hiding. No escaping. No matter how much I wanted to run away, I owed it to the world to be courageous.
With the help of my family, I connected with a therapist who encouraged me to make an appointment. It was time for me to face my fears and take accountability for my mental health. Along with episodic depression, I was also diagnosed with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I’ve lived with OCD for as long as I can remember, but it took a mental health professional to help me understand how crippling it had become for me. I had heard of OCD, but I thought it meant being a germaphobe or washing my hands a lot. For me, it was much more than that. This pattern of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors had completely taken over my life. It felt like I didn’t even have control of my brain. I needed to check doors to make sure they were locked, sometimes up to 50 times before leaving the house. This constantly led to me being late for class and work. I could never be quite sure enough that the doors were locked. I could never be sure enough that the stove was turned off. I was never sure of anything. I didn’t trust my brain and it felt like my brain didn’t trust me.
Rounded numbers completely freaked me out. I refused to get in a car if the stereo volume or speed was set to a rounded number. I could only set my alarm each morning for a non-rounded number like 7:58 instead of 8:00. My head created worst-case scenarios if I didn’t do these things—that the car would crash and burn, that I would not wake up alive if my alarm wasn’t set at the correct time. I counted every step I took, counted every ceiling tile in the room, counted literally everything. This had become my normal for over 20 years, and it wasn’t a sustainable way to exist.
It’s been a long journey of therapy, Prozac, and working every day to be a better version of myself. I had to commit myself to the work. My therapist told me that I had the strongest case of OCD she had ever come across. She is a faculty member at a university, and she uses me as a case study with her graduate students on how to diagnose and treat OCD.
Today, I love and value life more than I every thought possible. I live in the moment and do my best to take nothing for granted. It’s amazing that when you stop feeling like a meaningless grain of sand, all of the right counterparts seem to blow your way and in-unison build the most incredible sand castles. All of my mental health conditions are chronic. With treatment, they come and go. It will always be that way for me. The flare-ups are just more manageable now.
Why is there a such a stigma around mental health issues? We get physicals every year to check out our body, but are somehow embarrassed to admit when something isn’t right in our mind? Now I make it a priority to talk about it more. If nothing else, I let others know they aren’t alone. A chat with one rational person helped me make sense of my irrational thoughts, and maybe it could help someone else too.
In a world where everything seems fake on social media, I am committed to showing the raw side of my life—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s not all “good vibes” and “positive thoughts”. My mental battles have made me who I am.
It took me 25 years to recognize that I was struggling mentally. It wouldn’t have happened without the support of my family who encouraged me to seek help from a mental health professional. I know that not everyone has access to this type of support, and for that I’m very grateful.
Trudging through the sand hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been fun. It’s been a journey that I’m glad I embarked on, though. Let’s face it, if I had succumbed to my depression and OCD, I wouldn’t be here to even make one more footprint in the sand.