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.

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.

Surface Tension

He held me on the sidewalk while bodies passed, dodging us like we were delicate birds in the middle of the road.

I stained his jacket like the rain looming above our heads threatened to stain the city.

We had been here before. Me grieving a loss of something I’d never had. Him towering over me like a building I could lock myself inside.

I used to think he waded in shallow waters while I sunk into the deep. I pictured his long tranquil body at the surface, a halo of sun emanating over the sea. I couldn’t reach it.

In the car I mourned the loss of nothing and felt myself sink. He held my hand just in time to keep me afloat. We locked eyes and fingers, igniting a forcefield to keep the world out.

Driving through the clutter, we escaped the muck that pressed onto our skin – mine always stickier than his it seemed.

When we were free I kissed him so he could feel the light he had left inside me.

It was then I knew we’d find our way together

through the rain,

the sea,

and up towards the sun.

Wasting Away

If only I could puke me out.

When I was done carving out my insides

I’d watch the ugly colorless excrement squirm on the floor.

______________________________________________________________________________

No need to kill it.

It’ll just die starving, waiting for nourishment like a newborn

– reaching out for hands.

______________________________________________________________________________

We’re all put off by our own vomit,

so I turn my back on it

because I’m clean now. I am.

______________________________________________________________________________

But wait,

a familiar acidic sting touches the back of my throat

– runs its fingers down my tongue.

______________________________________________________________________________

When I turn around the waste is standing behind me.

“Is something wrong?” it asks

– a foul smile forming on its face.

______________________________________________________________________________

And before I can answer I’m puking again.

My blood vessels burst all at once like a firecracker

And the lights go out for me too.

Slowing Down

Thoughts written on the back of specials menus during a late night serving shift

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It shouldn’t be lonely to be alone. Resilience is knowing this,                      living without relying.                                  Something I couldn’t fathom as a child when all my loved ones were drinking from a fountain of eternal youth and I was certain I’d be great.

How much can a person’s light fade before they disappear?

I keep turning onto dead ends, which is to be expected when you have no sense of direction. I dreamt I found my starting point. Feeling the sweet rush of a challenge suited for me, I embraced it like an old friend. I woke up with a dull pain in my chest. It’s been hard to b r e a   t h e.  Now I draw in tentative breaths that move as slow as I do.

 

 

 

 

 

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.