I am nineteen and sitting in the campus counselor’s office. Her room is sunny and overlooks the quad, where boys in shorts toss frisbees with shouts and girls in floral shirts clump together at a picnic table, laughter and chatter floating above their open laptops. I look down at my hands, fidgeting in my lap, as I wait for Alexa to sit down in the arm chair across from me.
The arrangement of the room is more suggestive of a conversation between friends than therapy–– we’re both in arm chairs, a small table between us. Her notebook lies on the table when she isn’t writing. On the first day she explained this to me:
“I keep it there because I want you to be able to know what I’m writing, if you’d like.”
We talk about what you’d expect–– emotions. How they claw at my throat, choke me. How they sit like stones in my brain, petrify me. How they make the world, my breathing, my thoughts speed up until the only way to stop is to crash. How they sing a dissonant lullaby of self doubt, self hatred, to me each night.
I am here because I began to have panic attacks again. I am here because I am depressed. I am here, but I am not. I am somewhere far beneath the icy surface of my own thoughts. Somewhere so deep, so isolated, that rescue seems impossible. But Alexa hands me a pickaxe. I begin to chip, chip, chip.
I have had anxiety my entire life. As a baby, I pulled my eyelashes out. As a child, I struggled with separation from my parents. In middle school, I was overwhelmed with the need to ask my mother the same series of questions before leaving each morning. At the start of high school, I had my first panic attack. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when anxiety reared its head again in my sophomore year of college. But it did.
I should be over this by now, I thought. I know better. Logically, I know everything is fine.
Yet I still felt sick to my stomach with dread before going to class. I still couldn’t stop catastrophizing, telling myself that I would be trapped and everything would go wrong. I still felt too ill to eat more than crackers some days.
How I felt was all I could think about, but my anxiety was unnoticeable to the people around me. I still went to class. I still took notes and handed in papers. I had friends who I saw regularly, who I hung out with in the school’s cafeteria, in their dorm rooms. We even went to poetry slams at a local bar every other Tuesday night, still too young to drink, but excited to share our poetry.
I was an expert actor. You would not have known.
“How have you been feeling this past week?” Alexa asks, yellow notepad perched on her leg, pencil in hand.
“Um,” I laugh nervously. I hate this part. I hate admitting how I feel. I hate acknowledging this weakness.
Alexa is patient, and the slight smile on her lips is kind. I begin to fidget. I cannot last long in silence.
“Sad,” I say.
“Did anything trigger the sadness?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
I look at the library across the quad. I know my friends are gathered on the third floor, and that they will be there when my hour with Alexa is up. A voice tells me I do not deserve them. I am not good enough for them.
Alexa interrupts my thoughts. “Let’s talk about it a bit,” she says.
So we do.
I’ve been depressed since I was a teenager. It’s not constant, but comes in waves, allowing me months, years, of normality before crashing ashore and ripping up my roots.
The first time I tried to tell someone I was depressed, I was seventeen. They didn’t believe me. The therapist my parents took me to didn’t believe me. It’s just your hormones, she said. You’ll outgrow it. So I swallowed it. I told myself it wasn’t real.
I can talk anxiety about with relative ease. Depression, on the other hand, is much harder to discuss. I often feel the need to distance myself from it in my writing, to say I was depressed, but that was years ago and now I’m fine. Things got better. I outgrew it. I barely remember it now.
I rarely talk about the times I cried while writing essays, entirely convinced I was going to fail even though there was no actual evidence to support that. The only indication was the thoughts: This is the time you fail. This is the time they all see what a fraud you are. This is the time you let everyone down. I also don’t talk about the self hatred I felt for most of my teenage years; the way I was convinced no one could actually like me as a person because what was there to like? I don’t talk about the emptiness that consumed me, that sucked my emotions into a void, made it impossible for me to cry or feel or care as much as I used to. How can I talk about this? How can I admit to being a monster, even temporarily? More importantly, how can I not talk about it?
Here’s the thing: therapy works.
My weekly meetings with Alexa brought the panic attacks to a halt and helped me begin to see the fallacy in my negative thoughts.
Here’s the other thing: it is not a fast cure. There is no fast cure. There is no one-size-fits-all fix.
For me, a combination of regular therapy, medication, writing, exercise, and supportive family and friends has made both disorders, though especially the anxiety, much more manageable. It’s allowed me to not only function, but live. If I have learned one thing through this suffering, it is that I will never take living–– actually living–– for granted.
I will unapologetically bask in every moment of it.
Jessie Serfilippi is a writer, poet, amateur Early American History historian, and animal rights activist. She lives in Albany, NY with her rescue rabbits and turtle. You can follow her on Twitter at @Utterly_Jessie and read her animal rights articles by visiting the Albany Times Union Animal Rights Blog.
This is a contributor post for the Mental Health Series.
- Katie Crawford