My words carry a circumference. They circle back to themselves, to the same topics. I think there’s a good reason for this– these are the topics that never leave. Even as their form changes, they never go away. My body, my relationship with food, personal relationships, and mental health. At various points these topics inch along the verbal protractor, but always and inevitably, they make the 360-degree revolution.
My first memory is believing that I was going to die in Disney world. My two-year-old body submerged beneath the dragon-mouth pool, I gazed at the cerulean shades surrounding me as my mass sunk me lower into the water. “This is how it ends,” I thought. The thought was peaceful but interrupted by a pair of calloused hands fishing me from the pool. It was my Dad. I shrugged and continued basking in the sunlight.
I’ve wanted to die since I was eight. I’ve written about this. You know this. It’s hard describing this to people without my words growing fangs, being a liability in my own mouth. This doesn’t mean that I am perpetually sad. It means that my brain chemistry is wired against me. It means that I struggle with feelings of worthiness, that somehow I don’t deserve the oxygen coursing through me right now. My heart knows better than my brain– keeps pumping strong through everything that’s almost broken me. Writing so candidly about my mental health is a risk. My words can be contorted against me, substantiating a lack of stability. But even when twisted away from me, I stand by what I say. The risk in silence is greater than the risk of speaking. There’s a statistic that for every suicide, there are 250 people contemplating it. But none of them want to speak. We tell ourselves that depression, suicidal ideations, anxiety, and the host of mental health issues are a defect. As I tally up the years I didn’t want to live, the attempts I actively made to seek the alternative, and the myriad of things I’ve accomplished since then (graduating high school and college, helping raise my little sisters, going abroad three times, making solid friendships, giving a TED Talk, finding out who I am and saying it out loud) I don’t think I am a liability. I think I am unbreakable. Even as my head is an anchor sinking deeper and deeper, I refuse to quit swimming.
But what do you do when it’s your loved one that doesn’t want to be here? It’s hard to not feel your whole heart shatter inside your chest. Here is this incredible, beloved person before you, admitting how little they want to live. Your job is not to fix them. Your job is not to make it better. Don’t shackle yourself as a caretaker. Do not place all responsibility for someone else’s joy on your own back. You will fail. What you do is show up for that person. Check in and do it often. Say I love you a lot. The more people see that love does not abandon them in times of difficulty, the more apt they are to raise their hands for help. We all deserve help. Enlist the assistance of professionals: therapists and doctors. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to maintain an adult. This isn’t a weakness. Rather, it underscores our humanity, our basic need for human connection. Mental health is a dragon we slay over and over again. With each battle, it doesn’t feel winnable, but it is.
Winning doesn’t look the way we thought it would. It doesn’t look like awards and lush salaries. Winning, for me, is sleeping through the night. Winning is encountering a trigger that would have obliterated me, and understanding how to cope with it. Winning is defined in our own metrics, on our own terms, our own way.
The first and most important life you save is your own. If you cannot keep yourself afloat, you can’t help anyone else. There will be days that feel like a marathon on fire when even the notion of crawling out of bed is the most herculean of tasks. The best thing you can do is take care of yourself. Brush your teeth, take a shower, change your sheets, try to eat something, drink water. Baby steps still move you forward. The truth is that you move no mountains without tending to your own two feet first. Self-care is the foundation of your thriving.
Above that, you might need extra support. There’s no shame in that. Therapy is SO GOOD FOR YOU. Your friends are not your therapist. Your parents are not your therapist. Your partner is not your therapist. Yes, therapy is hella expensive (I spent $3500 on therapy in 2018 alone), but you can’t afford not to take care of yourself. Because here’s the thing: your credit score doesn’t matter if you’re not here. Your job title doesn’t matter if you’re not alive to hold it. The size of your jeans doesn’t matter if your two legs are not on this earth to wear them. So, do the divine work of self-care. You are worth it. You are worth it. You are so so so very worth it.
On that same note, there is nothing wrong with taking medication. Since I was 13, I’ve cycled on and off of various antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Buspar. And yes, my panic meds make me so sweaty that my yoga mat looks like a slip-n-slide by the end of class. But my head is no longer a haunted house. It doesn’t cure me, but my meds make my symptoms slightly more manageable.
In the meantime, please enjoy this list of tips I’ve gathered from therapy:
- 100% better probably isn’t realistic so focus on 1% better– it builds faster than you realize.
- Think of your productivity in 15-minute increments and nothing larger.
- Holding yourself accountable is part of the healing.
- Procrastination is a tenant of perfectionism because the rush of time is the only distraction from the tremendous pressure of being perfect (and FYI– done is better than perfect).
- Abandon all-or-nothing thinking. Life is about inclusion, adaptation, flexibility not rigid rules.
- Learn how to set boundaries and stand firm in those boundaries.
- Not everyone will be able to honor those boundaries, if people can’t, you need to learn to let them go. That empty space you fear in your life is freedom, not grief.
- Caretaking is a codependent behavior.
- Believing you have no control over your life is an excellent strategy to never make any decisions or empower yourself in your choices.
- Even if they are profoundly uncomfortable, feelings cannot hurt you. They are all valid. Feelings are one word.
- No one can make you feel one way. You are in charge of your own emotions.
- Anger demands to be processed. You cannot stuff it away or allow it to inflate you into aggression. You need to express your needs and feelings. After all, anger is a secondary emotion. What’s at its root?
- Trauma literally changes your brain chemistry. Therefore, behaviors and decision-making can be altered. It’s ok. Just be cognizant of that.
- Anxiety is a liar. Depression is a liar. They morph every thought into the worst-case scenario. The challenge is to match that with “what if it does work out for me?” “what if I am enough?”
- Replace “lazy” with unproductive.
- Replace “I don’t have time for x” with “x is not a priority”.
- Most people’s behaviors are a reflection of their own feelings and perceptions, not about you.
- Mindfulness is a blessing, to slowly enjoy this rapid world is an art.
- Breathe. Breathe from your diaphragm. Slow breathing calms your central nervous system. Also, pressing your third eye (aka the spot on your forehead above your nose between your eyes) also calms down your central nervous system.
- Control is not the same as power, and obsessing over it is one of the most disempowering things.
It’s a lucky thing to be alive long enough to survive traffic jams and paying for parking when I thought I wouldn’t have to and going to the dentist. It is a blessing to be alive for those annoyances. And you deserve that too. You deserve to enjoy that first bite of your favorite food. You deserve to enjoy the riff of “Bittersweet Symphony” as it blares on the radio. You deserve to run so hard and fast that when you stop you feel the euphoric expansion of your lungs as they grasp for all the air they can. You deserve to talk outside and feel the sun pour onto your skin. And the only way you get there is to stay alive.
I have survived seasons of my life in blanket cacoons, glued to the blue light of a Netflix screen. I’ve survived the days when nothing felt heavier than existing. I’ve survived years where I wanted to take away my sibling’s sister; my mentee’s mentor; ,my best friend’s best friend; my parent’s firstborn daughter. And perhaps that’s how I’ve stayed alive. I belong to so many people that it’s too messy to untangle this spiderweb of connection. There was no way for me to die without being the hardest thing my loved ones would talk about. And no matter how much I was hurting, I couldn’t hurt them like that.
I have also been the audience to other people’s breaking. I’ve sat across from my love, a person I would reassemble the moon for if they wanted me to, and heard how they didn’t want to be alive. Life can be a hard and ruthless landscape. We are the flowers in the desert, which makes barren beautiful. Right now, your name is someone’s favorite sound. Your favorite song has yet to be sung, your favorite book has yet to be written, and your favorite movie is still in production. And the only way you get to experience all these things is to stay alive. So, do that. Do the boring self-care knowing that it will lead you to the grandest of places and biggest of surprises and most incredible things. Do it because you deserve every last bit of it. I promise.