What I’m Learning From My First Psychological Diagnosis

When my therapist confirmed that I have an anxiety disorder with depression lingering not far behind yesterday, I wasn’t surprised. Instead, I felt relieved OR was it more like validated? It was a mixture of both. It’s strange how visceral the rush of serotonin was that came over me in that moment. It felt like I wasn’t carrying the load on my own anymore. Oddly enough, it didn’t matter that I had already guessed what was wrong and that my therapist had only confirmed it — the fact that I was having an open conversation about it at all and that my concerns were valid…? Groundbreaking.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a diagnosis means. Does it change anything? No. Does it magically fix the problem? Not at all. What it does is offer a point of reference, an outline to work off of so we can take the actionable steps needed to function with our diagnosis. It’s like adding another flavor to the rich, complex meal that is your life. If you’re anything like me and have to work a little harder to find order in your life, a diagnosis can help break through all the abstraction and confusion to give you something solid to hold onto. The irony is, it can actually help you feel like you’re not crazy at all.

Up until very recently, unfortunately, I thought I was defective. I thought everyone around me was moving through life normally and I was five steps behind. When I discovered that drinking made the symptoms go away, I leaned on that like it was medication. It was especially bad during my freshman year of college when I was pretending to be someone else and fear filled every room I was in. I was drinking constantly, numbing myself in social gatherings to present myself as fearless and crying myself to sleep every night. Eventually, I flunked out. The sad thing is everyone around me thought I was outgoing, happy and calm. Inside, I was working overtime to make it appear that way. Nobody knew. It was exhausting and I needed help.

I look back at this time in my life and if it hadn’t been for a hip injury that forced me to sit at home for months, I don’t know how I would’ve found my way. I so deeply wanted to be happy and stable that I did everything in my power to start over. I know now that I’m very fortunate to be able to say that, not everyone has the ability or the support to keep climbing. Although I developed healthier habits as time went on, the fear was always present. That’s where the diagnosis comes in.

There’s comfort in knowing that I’m not weak, off or incapable. Those were the labels I put on myself when I didn’t have an answer for why I was struggling to do seemingly normal things. Now, when my hearts starts pounding in my chest and it’s hard to breathe, I know why. When the weight of the world seems to press down on me, I know I’m not the only one that feels that way. Even when I fail to manage the symptoms — and I know I will sometimes — at least I won’t feel alone and broken. For a long time, I put off seeking help and addressing what I was feeling. It kept knocking on my door until it kicked the door down. Just last month I opened a bottle of wine at 9am to get through something that most people do every day, but that was making my whole body shake because it meant that people would have to really see me. While I feel ashamed and embarrassed sharing this, it’s worth it if my story helps someone out there who’s perfected the art of pretending everything’s fine. It’s okay if it isn’t.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope you’re all doing well and intending to prioritize some much-needed self-care this year. Whether you’re planning on starting your mental health journey or channeling those buried feelings into art, I sincerely wish you the best along every step of the way.

Opening Up About My Mental Health

Let’s talk about anxiety!

We’ve all experienced it at one point or another. Maybe it was before you had to present something in front of a class or maybe it creeps into every conversation you have with someone. However constant or random it is in your life, it’s there all the same and it is the worst.

My relationship with anxiety is still very much a gray area in my life as I’ve only recently found a therapist and haven’t been properly diagnosed. I don’t have a professional’s stamp of approval that I’m an anxious person but trust me, when answering phone calls at your job makes your bowels contort and has you looking for any excuse to run to the bathroom so you can cry and breathe, you know something’s off. That’s been an ongoing pattern in my life since before I can remember.

I don’t understand my anxiety yet, but I’m looking forward to getting to know her as my therapy journey unfolds. She’s sort of like a very on and off again partner — sometimes we can’t help but fall back into our toxic patterns. In the past, that’s shown up as getting drunk before noon to head into my serving jobs — it’s how I would transform into my “calm, cool self,” into a version of me that didn’t shake in challenging situations where I was being watched. I convinced myself that handling stimuli like this was okay, that it was only temporary and that I just needed a push before finding my footing. Now I realize I was harming myself to appear like I was healthy.

Anxious feelings are a common thread in all of our lives, which is why many of us find unhealthy ways to cope with them. More often than not, people think “the anxiety label” is only for people who’ve been told they’re “sick” and need medication, when really there are millions of anxious people out there who don’t have the proper resources or privilege to even get diagnosed in the first place. They go their whole lives with that fear left unchecked and numb it the only way they know how…alone. And that, my friends, makes me so fucking sad.

Therapy and mental health education weren’t prioritized discussion topics in my upbringing, which I know is the case for many other families. In my Portuguese household (at the risk of speaking for a group of people and being misunderstood), I was taught to be resilient, to repress things and to carry on. Having a therapist or talking about seeking professional help just weren’t commonly on the menu, but Bacalhau was (gotta love a silver lining). Looking back, I know this wasn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just the pattern we knew best. Unfortunately, it’s the pattern most people know best.

While I didn’t have a point when I started writing this, I guess I just wanted to remind people that you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. Humans have an incredible knack for burying their shame, even if what they’re afraid of is nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m still very anxious (roll credits) about sharing my own mental health experiences. I would never have made it this far without the help of all the people who shared theirs so boldly. So, with that being said, I want to open up a nurturing space to talk about it, to remove the shame and to make getting help something worth being proud of.

If you got this far, let me know if you want more blog posts about topics like this. I’d love to go more in-depth about my own experiences, too. Please feel free to share your own with me in our judgment-free zone and know that you’re never alone, even when it feels like no one gets it.

Filling Your Own Cup: Persevering in Uncertain Times

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck because pieces of you are split up in different places?

Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’m in limbo. The feeling first started creeping in when I was living somewhere I was anxious to leave and I knew that better opportunities were waiting for me somewhere else. It’s like I was saving my creative energy for a new setting and until I was there, I’d keep coming up short creatively (or at least, that was my excuse). I thought paintings and blog posts would pour out of me the second I moved into this new apartment. But, I felt more uninspired than ever when I arrived at the “better” place.

I repeat this mistake a lot — making a change of scenery responsible for providing me clarity. In my experience, however, focus almost always comes from the inside out. It doesn’t appear out of thin air in a new place, as much as we might want or need it to. You have to go digging.

When you feel overwhelmed and you’ve been staring at that blank canvas or empty journal, ask yourself: what’s really slowing me down?

For me, the answer took a while to excavate but when I touched the nerve, it all came pouring out. I was grieving the fact that my family and I were separated by a greater distance than I had ever known. My parents had moved back to the Azores in July and I stayed behind in Los Angeles, which meant that we now led separate lives in different countries. It was a lot to take in and a little too much for me to acknowledge. You could say I felt those growing pains hard.

Things proved even more difficult with COVID-19. Whenever I thought I’d be able to see my family, new obstacles popped up threatening to separate us even longer. I’m certain many of you understand and I think we’re all missing someone or something more deeply than ever. You can almost feel the collective fear of time building in the atmosphere.

The point is, when I finally allowed myself to look at the source of my blockage, all of the reasons I was exactly where I was supposed to be revealed themselves too. All of the friendships, opportunities and moments my boyfriend and I had created in LA came up. It was this incredible life we had built even if it was separate from my roots — what a scary and beautiful thing.

What I learned through facing my blockage head on was that I had been making people and settings responsible for my ability to create, and that’s why I kept finding myself in the same spot. I was giving outside influences all of my power even when there was little I could do to change them. When I finally acknowledged the distance from my family objectively, I realized what I actually needed. I needed to fill my own cup.

Now I know that whenever I feel creatively stuck because my heart is in different places or lamenting something, I can always choose to find beauty in where I’m standing now. People, settings, and things will constantly change and I can still choose to show up for myself. In the past, I might’ve thought this way of thinking made you a selfish person. Now, I realize it’s the kind of thinking that can save your life.

Still A Work in Progress

Last night I picked at the dry skin on my bottom lip and stared at the ceiling for hours until eventually, around four in the morning, my eyelids felt heavy. My mind was frantically planning an emergency escape from the absolute dry spell of inspiration and adventure that my current life had become.

Oftentimes, when I’ve reached the deep end of a low point in my life, I experience  random bursts of inspiration. They seem to come to me from an outside source, usually before bed, and they beg to be the fuel for something productive. Sadly, they often go unused and unfulfilled. During last night’s episode in particular, I found myself watching a TEDx Talk by Caroline McHugh called “The art of being yourself”. It was through this that a couple of things became clear to me.

To start, I’ve wasted too much time comparing myself to and appeasing others. McHugh attributes this habit in particular with a female-driven desire to be liked and appreciated. As a child, I never cared what people thought of me and it made me seem bizarre to other kids, especially to other young girls. In fifth grade while my “normal” female classmates were learning to straighten their hair and passing notes to the cute boys in class, I was designing identification cards for my three best friends as official entry into our magical world. We were young witches in a Harry Potter-based universe one week and ghost hunters trying to break into the haunted house behind the gym the next. I remember mustering the courage to ask the one boy I had a crush on if he liked me back and he laughed in my face. “No. You’re weird,” was the response I got before he sprinted back to his herd of cool boys. I shrugged and walked back to my friends unscathed. We had adventures to continue and the rest of our lives to fantasize about. Sure, it would’ve been nice if dreamboat Nick liked me back, but his opinion held no power over my confidence. I’ve been searching for that strength inside myself ever since. (P.S. Nick has since added me on Facebook and flirted his way into my messenger.)

My fixation on what others were thinking of me or what others were doing with their lives only held me back. Instead of allowing myself the time necessary to focus and think about who I wanted to become, I filled my time with Youtube videos of other people making their dreams come true. I soaked up the lives of the fictional TV and film characters that I adored and envisioned seeking out the same adventures and success. I’d often say things like “I could easily do what she’s doing!” or, after a random surge of inspiration, attack my parents with lists of ideas and dreams I hoped to accomplish to which they would nod and reply “It all sounds great Mariana. I want to see you do it.” I don’t regret soaking up all the inspiration, but I do regret not giving the same attention to myself that I gave/give to the people I admire. I realized that I need to build a relationship of admiration with myself to start making real strides.

Self-discipline is a bitch. I’ve been struggling with it my entire life, but more as a postgraduate than ever. Someone recently told me that talent is only 30% of what we can each rely on. The rest is how much work and dedication we are willing to put in every day to bring whatever dream we choose to fruition. I had been failing at this miserably, blaming bad luck and fate for how stagnant my life had become. The truth was right in front of me and I knew it all along. I was the one thing stopping me from moving forward.

So, what now?

As the title of this post would suggest, my path to pushing my limits and “making my dreams come true” is still a work in progress. I plan to make this blog my guinea pig, a place where I can track my creative productivity. I strongly suggest anyone who feels road-blocked or lost to watch Caroline McHugh’s Tedx Talk. She reminds us that we each have something powerful and unique to bring to the world. The first and most crucial step is to see it.

Stuck Again

I know I haven’t posted in a while and that’s honestly because I have not been writing enough. I was sifting through my journal today and came across an entry I wrote in January when I was battling with what I believe to be some form of depression though I’ve never been properly diagnosed. The older I get the more I’ve come to realize that I am constantly battling a toss-up between extreme highs and lows, which I’m sure is “normal”, but something that I know I could monitor when I decide to take the initiative. I am trying to search for insight, so I’m sharing this in part to see if anyone’s felt this way and because I need to set it free. This isn’t my strongest writing, but it’s true.

January 17, 2017

I think disinterestedness or indifference is as debilitating as depression. Whether it be a specific moment, like sinking slowly into a couch watching your friends comfortably interact with one another and feign confidence before you, or multiple days that drag into one string of monochromatic images. Nothing and no-one can do anything for you. You’re not bored, because it’s about more than just feeling like life is uneventful. Disappointment is where it begins, realizing that all of the love, time, and intimacy you’ve fed someone leaves you barren and clawing for something that won’t come any time soon – not soon enough anyway. Disappointment creeps in like cancer when you see your family for what it really is. When you see the unforgivable faults in a parent who is beyond repair, who selfishly drags it’s better half into purgatory. When childhood dreams gather dust and your body fails you. When you see the darkness in your friends’ eyes and it collectively leaves you wondering…where do I fit into all of this? The worst part is that by the time you’ve reached the point of asking yourself this, you’ve already seen too much. No amount of alcohol can black out the reality, the endless images tucked away. As the folder of images fattens your walk begins to change. You carry yourself closer to the ground with every step. You attempt normality by going to the parties, meeting the people, reading the books, writing the stuff, eating the food, trying the things, but you are heavy.

I never want to lose my soul, but I’d like to travel into a different body. I could be the Moon, I could be a blue jay. I could be everywhere all at once, absorb light, and bleed into every moment for the rest of time.

Temptation

Have you ever felt like doing something in a specific moment that would be utterly insane and ridiculous to everyone around you? This feeling comes and goes in my life. It creeps up from the depths of my unconscious, threatening to break free into my civilized day-to-day life. For example, earlier today I was having a normal conversation with a friend at the dinner table. Out of nowhere I felt this undeniable urge to pick up the cup in front of me and throw it at the wall. I don’t know where this urge came from and why I felt the desire to do this. Yet, the temptation to be uninhibited and “ridiculous” in that otherwise average moment is so inviting. Freud insisted that we had all of these thoughts, beliefs and desires repressed in our unconscious wanting to make themselves known in our lives. I’ve always found this theory fascinating because it implies that there’s more to all of us as individuals than we fully understand. We’re like incomplete puzzles, completely unaware of where our missing pieces are and what the finished image would look like.

Sometimes, these random bursts of temptation to do something completely out of the ordinary make me feel alive, almost primitive in a way. If you think about it, humans have found ways to fill this void by doing things that don’t quite make sense but that feed the temptation. Such things like skydiving, bungee jumping, reality altering drugs, etc., mimic that feeling of losing control. Why else would we do these things if not to feel completely uninhibited and why does that make us feel so good? I also find it interesting that for me, personally, moments of temptation come mostly when I’m in formal settings, social settings or in situations where I want to conduct myself well. It’s almost like part of me unconsciously strives to “misbehave” or desires to stop following any kind of guideline or social rule.

I’ve been in countless situations around big groups of people where I imagine myself screaming “FUCK!” at the top of my lungs. I visualize what would happen if I did it and how the people around me would react. Other times, in business settings, I’ve wondered what would happen if I started taking my clothes off, mainly because of how absurd it would be in that moment. I realize all of this might make me sound insane. I honestly thought there was something wrong with me until I asked my friends if these thoughts ever crossed their minds. To my surprise, most of them laughed when I asked and shared the temptations they’ve encountered in their own lives. One of my friends shared her desire to jump when on the ledge of a tall building or bridge. She insisted that it wasn’t a suicidal temptation but something that came from wanting to feel weightless, like flying. Research I’ve done also shows that I’m not alone in having these “absurd” temptations. All of this makes me want to look more into the subject of unconscious temptation. The human psych fascinates me, especially the areas we don’t know much about or fully understand.

Alrighty, then.

6407_10200376853125253_1437698959_nI’ve always been the kind of person that needs to be occupied in order to feel sane. Maybe that’s because I’m a Leo and, according to an immensely reliable yahoo.com article, “if not actively employed in some work or purpose Leos become melancholy and despondent.” I’ve come to terms with the accuracy of this statement, especially lately.

Recently, while dealing with this whole ‘I don’t know where I’m going with my life’ and ‘who am I?’ nonsense, I realized that I feel worthless unless I am actively working towards a particular goal. This constant dissatisfaction is what drives me to accomplish anything in the first place. It’s ironic that during this particular period in my life in which I want to accomplish actual things, I am stuck inside completely immobile. Well, not entirely incapable of moving but stuck inside and in need of crutches.

Just yesterday, I found out that I have a stress fracture on my left hip and that the healing process takes six weeks of absolutely no pressure on my left leg. Definitely not the end of the world. People get injured all the damn time. It’s just interesting that all of these life-altering circumstances are piling up on top of one another right at the beginning of this year. I mean, I just dropped out of college and was about to get a job so as to get my life together only to find out that now I have to be content with solitary confinement. When I hear myself actually say all of this, I can’t help but laugh. I’m sitting here, leg propped up on a cushion, laughing at myself.

My only way of coping through all of this is to believe that there will be a triumphant calm after this storm. Though, honestly, as bad as all of this sounds, I am pretty content with my free time. Today, I only had two mental breakdowns, which, for someone who loathes being without plans and stuck inside, is definitely reasonable. My breakdowns usually stem from my obsession with not wasting time. If I watch T.V for an hour, I feel guilty. If I’m on the internet for too long, I feel guilty. I need to be occupied with activities that feel rewarding. My goals for these six weeks are as follows: Read, a lot, because I have no excuse not to at the moment. Write. Eat well, considering my immobility could turn me into a ball. Play and write music. Basically, stay creative and motivated. Like I keep telling myself, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride”.