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.

Why I Finally Caved and Made a YouTube Channel

YouTube’s been a friend to me for years, through the growing pains of high school with beauty gurus and vloggers helping me feel seen and into adulthood with art and spiritual channels inspiring me to find my own voice. It’s been both a place to shut out my real life by getting lost in someone else’s and a deep well of information to use for my own benefit. For years, I watched other peoples’ content and couldn’t figure out why I was so hooked. It wasn’t just that I loved watching other people create and share their stories, it’s that I was being lured into overcoming my fears to do the same. I just didn’t know it yet. 

I can’t even tell you how many YouTube videos I recorded and edited on iMovie over the years, none of which ever saw the light of day. I even published two of them on my YouTube channel back in 2014, one was a “Get Ready with Me” and the other a “Get to Know Me.” I deleted both of them after about a week. The fear got to me again, and Lord knows I knew this routine well. I’d step out onto the stage for a quick high and then cower away after a few views, the familiar feelings of relief and shame flooding back. After many failed attempts, I eventually laid my budding YouTube curiosity to rest. It had been tucked away for years until one of the first nights I spent in LA in 2019. 

Most of my dreams are fairly abstract. You can make out the general themes they might be trying to convey but they seldom give me a clear answer or task. So, when a resounding voice in a dream said “buy a vlog camera and get over yourself,” I woke up in the middle of the night with a stir in my stomach that was unmistakable — I was being poked with a stick by the Universe and she had HAD ENOUGH of my whiny bullshit. 

I heard that message loud and clear this time around. Problem was, I didn’t know what content I had to offer on YouTube — but just like all things the Universe has up her gorgeous sleeves — there was a plan already in the works. All that time I had spent painting, writing and thinking about what to do instead of actually making videos turned into fuel for the videos. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a YouTuber yet (I’ve only made eight videos lol) but there was this moment after I finished exporting the “My Story” video that the initial stir from the dream turned into gratitude that actually had me looking up with my arms stretched out, tears streaming down my face repeating “thank you” and “I’m so grateful” at the abyss. I never do this. In that moment, I understood what I had studied so many times. I understood how you can only hide so often from the things that you’re being called to do, no matter how scary they might seem (and they’re always scary when it counts). I realized these stirrings of inspiration will work endlessly to find you because they want you to find your courage.

I don’t have many views, likes or subscribers, but I’m the happiest creatively I’ve ever been. I’m putting something out there! Doing it for those shallow reasons and wanting what other people had is what stopped me from doing in the first place. Now, when even one person tells me something I created or said inspired them, I think about the sixteen-year-old under her covers watching video after video, shrinking into darkness. I think about how that girl felt the stirring to try, but chose not to. I think about how I would give her a long hug and tell her that it’s okay to be afraid — it’s how you carry that fear on your back and show up anyway that matters.

“Ember” | Original Abstract 16×20″ Acrylic Painting by Mariana R. Cabral

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.

My Big Fat Hollywood Move: In the Thick of It

I don’t know how long I had been complacent before I moved out here, but I do remember feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the opening scene of The Graduate — propelling lifelessly on a moving walkway into his future. I bounced from one non-stimulating experience to another and rotated between the same toxic behavioral patterns. I couldn’t own up to my fault in it.

In the early stages of living in LA, we faced everything from nearly running out of money to our first landlord shortening our lease out of nowhere. I spent endless hours applying for jobs, apartment-hunting, juggling job interviews, and handing my resume out to open hands while Rich held up the fort. Regardless of the effort being made on both sides, we didn’t have the sufficient combined income to find another place before getting kicked to the curb.

On paper, it seemed like LA might not be in the cards. Somehow though, we were fine. Even in that first shitty Koreatown apartment where all the neighborhood cats congregated for weekly orgies and cops drove by looking for drug deals to bust, we were hyped up on the promise of the next adventure.

We traversed the city’s urine-stained streets, checked off all the major tourist stops on our list, and made time for daily walks around our neighborhood where I’d press my fingers onto wild flowers and milk every sultry sunset as fuel to keep going. I’d devour my peanut butter and sliced banana toast on our rotting wooden balcony and manifest. The cross-shaped power line in front of me was my temple.

While LA might not have been the reason I started finding a way out of the muck, the urgency and mayhem of reconstructing a life without the proper arsenal gave me a purpose. It forced me so far out of my comfort zone, my survival instincts kicked in. It was the first step that led into a sprint until finally I was going somewhere of my choosing.

As I picked up momentum, I unraveled years of false information I’d been telling myself: I’m not talented. I’m always five steps behind. I don’t have what it takes. I’m just not good enough, at anything. I thought hiring managers could see the same deficiencies I felt about myself. Truthfully, with how abusive my self-criticism could get, it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I’m sure they could see it.

In LA, once the fear of running out of money kicked in, I realized the only way we could stay was if I fought the toxic inner monologue with discipline and will power like never before. I decided to prove myself wrong. I’d prove that even though I was hundreds of thousands of miles away from “home,” I could make it work.

Eventually, through braving a lot of discomfort, some of the things that used to scare me more than anything became routine — from public speaking all over town to finding my own health insurance and everything else I would’ve put off in the past, I was rewiring my brain to adapt to the changes I needed to make.

One morning, I sat on the balcony and asked the cross-shaped power line for a job and a new place to live. I left my intentions lingering in space and carried on with my interviews in spite of that conniving inner voice telling me I wasn’t going to make it. Soon enough, I landed a temp job at a start-up in Santa Monica and Rich and I met a couple looking to share an apartment in Culver City — just days before we were about to lose everything.

At this point, things began to align at lightning speed. The anxiety of making an income and finding a place to live replaced with a cushy job and apartment at precisely the right time. I went from wondering what would happen next to spending eight hours of my day minutes away from the Santa Monica Pier. I’d walk along the beach and take the train to our resort-style apartment complex every night in awe.

Fast forward six months and the temp contract in Santa Monica had ended. I fly back to Massachusetts for the holidays not knowing if I’ll have a job waiting for me in LA when I get back. About a week later, I land a full-time job as a copywriter in El Segundo just in time for the new year — fulfilling a dream to write for a living that I thought might never come true. I start devoting a huge chunk of my free time to making art and reading about spirituality, philosophy and health. I feel free.

Life since moving to LA hasn’t shifted all that drastically from the life I had in Boston in terms of opportunity. No matter how new the experience is, that thrill of novelty wears off and eventually you’re just left with yourself again. If I hadn’t taken the time to work on the things that were dragging me into that dark, stagnant black hole, no amount of moving or wishing things were different would’ve set me free.

I’m still fighting the urge to sink into that stagnant place every day. That might always be part of my story. However, I also know that when I commit to an action and apply the discipline to see it through, manifestations come to life and I get closer to my bliss.

The state of the world has shifted drastically since I first started writing this blog. In fact, it’s been stored in my drafts for months because I felt like I had nothing of value to say. Never good enough. Now, as we’re all battling social distancing and the inner demons that arise during stagnant times, I feel like this has its place — my homage to the inner peace that can derive from taking disciplined action toward your goals, even the smallest ones.

I hope this introspective time inspires you to keep finding what feels good in spite of any toxic inner voices trying to hold you back. I hope you start to remember what you’re capable of so you can manifest your dreams, and I wish for everyone a life of their own choosing.

My Big Fat Hollywood Move: Baby Got Back Problems

A 24-year-old’s last-ditch effort at “following her dreams” with her boyfriend and moving across the country to see it through

When I posted the first installment of my LA blog series, I had been on a writing high all day – something I hadn’t felt in months. I can’t tell you how long I sat down to write that particular post, but I can tell you that when things like this happen I’ll sometimes forget to eat or piss. It’s like the idea might fade so I have to race to get it down before I can return to being a person.

Unloading all of that “I’m like totally chasing my dreams” euphoria onto a document and sharing it had me feeling pretty on top of the world. It might be silly but, to me, I had committed to something and allowed myself to be vulnerable. I hit that “Publish” button and got up ready to take on the next challenge. I was invincible. The last thing I thought was going to happen was almost instantaneously falling to the ground in scorching pain. I think that’s fair.

What had happened (and this is where the universe’s dark sense of humor comes in) was that while I had recovered from a muscle tear/strain in my lower back before moving to LA, the pretzel position I sat in all day to write about the move reignited the injury with a vengeance. And it really got me good this time around. A stark contrast to how indestructible I had been feeling just moments before. Of course, still riding the excitement of posting something I was proud of, I ignored it. I stood up even though my back could barely hold up the weight of my upper body. I didn’t allow myself to accept that this was happening. So, I convinced and dragged Rich (the boyfriend) out to celebrate the blog post and indulge in some beer and wings instead. Why not?

On our way to Buffalo Wild Wings, people driving beside us must’ve assumed I was in labor. I had my legs pushed into my chest cannonball-style and was taking the deepest breaths of my life, trying to force the pain away with each exhale. It wasn’t working, and we frantically drove around for twenty minutes just looking for a parking spot. There were none. There never are. We kept getting stuck at the same lights and driving around in the same circle before committing to yet another absurdly priced parking lot. This is driving in LA by the way. Parking is impossible, traffic is endless, and nothing is free or cheap. Eventually, we commit to a parking lot. When I get out of the car I’m waddling in slow motion like a duck and crying. Rich is in a panic, urging us to go home. To anyone watching I imagine it looked like a scene from Days of Our Lives. Regardless, I wiped away the tears, told the pain to fuck off, and set forth toward the wings. This would be a night of FUN!

Sitting while the fire in my back bubbled with buffalo sauce on my lips and a cold Blue Moon in my right hand, I realized I had unintentionally embodied the content of my very own words. What was it I said in the last blog post? Oh yes, that in a moment of pure bliss at the Santa Monica pier I had felt “fear because these moments of inner peace rarely last”. How fitting that I had just finished typing those words only to have thrown out my back seconds later. Yin and yang, my friends.

When I got up from that bar table, I had to muster a force from the gods not to crawl on all fours to the nearest bathroom. Somehow, I made it to the door and placed myself in line. For that two-minute wait I started to think the sweet release of death might be better than moving another inch. I only really caved when the room started spinning, which is when I realized the pain had won. I assumed my duck position once more and waddled all the way back to the car. Peeing or any other bodily function would have to wait.

It took everything in my power not to feel sorry for myself as we drove home, but all I could think about was how I had wished for inner peace to last and found myself here instead. How I had signed up for dance classes that I may not be in the condition to attend for a while. How I had written about fighting to be more present. And I had. So, what the hell?

It’s been a little over a week since all of this went down and I’m happy to say I can see from outside the melodrama and self-pity now. I can see that recurring problems can’t be ignored, and that unfortunately being present or grateful won’t make them disappear either. Unwelcome stressors will always come up, much like my student loans. While they can be avoided in some ways (in my case: not sitting in a terrible position for hours like I had been advised not to, yoga, core-strengthening), the true test is how well you can improvise and apply what you’ve learned from previous setbacks. Of course, that’s assuming you have the means necessary to do so. Not everyone has the proper resources to overcome the negative hurdles or injustices that plague them. I wish there were more ways around this.

I don’t have a recipe for avoiding the hiccups that pop up however big or small in each of our lives, but I do think that Imogen Heap was right in writing that “there is beauty in the breakdown”. With the extra recovery leisure time, I succeeded in applying for my own health insurance (I’m a grown-ass woman) and gingerly introduced walking back into my routine. This time, absorbing a totally new environment and spending some quiet time with myself. I have more to look forward to now and a heightened awareness of how important prioritizing health is, whether it’s physical, psychological or a mix of both.

I started this blog wanting to draw attention to the elastic band nature of our lives, the extreme highs and lows. I thought I could tell the truth – dive into the sticky vulnerable muck and prove that it’s just as therapeutic to write as it is to see yourself in the raw experiences of others. It’s a reminder that we’re a collective of both good and bad experiences. So, while I had plans to fill this second installment with all of the incredible things I’ve done and seen since I moved to LA, I didn’t want to gloss over the not-so-Instagram-worthy bits. Not only are they pretty hilarious to look back on sometimes, but they’re also a reminder that life is just one long improv exercise. You participate, laugh, and keep moving.