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.

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.

A Wake-Up Call

Candid thoughts from a solo trip to Austin, Texas, during SXSW

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My boyfriend of a year and I broke up about a month before spring break in 2016. The loss of him in my life shattered my reality. I became numb and indifferent. I lost sight of my responsibilities, drank too much, and started to slip drastically in school. My friends were trying to fill a void and pick up the pieces all at once. My parents were calling every day to check in, asking if I was sober and going to my classes. I wasn’t.

I had been in touch with them about my plans to travel over spring break and they knew it was part of a travel writing class project. They were also well aware that I desperately needed to get away. It was my dad’s idea for me to stay with my cousin, Maria, in Austin, Texas. We often hosted her in our house when she made her way from Portugal to The States for various solo trips of her own. She had always said that, when my time came to explore, I’d have a place to crash. I was looking into other options as well, but something about Austin during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film and Interactive Festival spoke to a part of me that had been buried for too long. My parents knew this. I clung desperately to the possibility that time away would wake me up from a deep slumber.

I gave myself over completely to being in love and lost half of myself along the way, not because he ever forced me to but because I was too eager to please. I prioritized him over myself and began to feel like I was disappearing. The half of me that had been raised unconventionally by a rock and roll father and a gypsy, belly-dancing mother grew small. In short, I subconsciously began to shed some of the “weird” from my identity.

In order to remember who I was, I clung to memories of summer days when my parents hosted parties in my childhood home. When the day grew dark, friends would make their way from our yard to the basement for secret adult jam sessions that never failed to peak my curiosity. I dreamt of being down there with them. My little cousin, Dylan, and I would play “spies” and creep down the stairs like mice, hoping to catch a glimpse of the magic coming from the basement through thick clouds of smoke. I marveled, wide-eyed, at the shadows of bodies dancing, the cacophony of grunge music blaring from inside, and the overlapping voices engaging in the kinds of conversations I was too young to understand but wanted to be a part of.

Sometimes, if I was lucky, my parents would let me say goodnight to everyone before bed. To ten-year-old me, that was like being handed a VIP pass to the sold out concert in our basement. I made the best out of the time I was given. I would engage in conversations with artists, musicians, writers, and listened intently. I’d jam out on the drums with my dad’s band, soaking in encouragement from people I respected. By the end of the night, I would lie in bed going over everything that had happened. I would fall asleep to the sweet sound of music and laughter coming from below me. I knew that was my world. I felt fulfilled.

For a year, while I was lost in a relationship, I struggled to find that same sense of fulfillment that tied to the roots of who I am. I neglected my needs, desires, and passions. It was as though I had become an extension of someone else who kept growing and evolving while I remained stagnant. I was free-falling. I thirsted for finding my place or purpose again and made the decision to be alone so that I could begin a new journey without anything or anyone clouding my judgment.

I landed in Austin at midnight on Sunday, March 13th. Only an hour after I arrived on southern soil, Maria and I found ourselves weaving through thousands of people on 6th Street in downtown. The city was overflowing with drunk people, rock and house music blaring from every corner. I passed and bumped into over a dozen musicians lugging around heavy amps and guitars from gig to gig. I watched a handful of girls in stilettos make their way to clubs; one tripped over her friend’s dress and they both went down like dominoes. My eyes darted to the obvious poverty as well, the homeless men and women wrapped in blankets, trying to sleep on the concrete as party-goers walked around them. This was downtown Austin during South By Southwest. It was chaos! It was alive. The city slapped me in the face, and I had only just arrived.

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I knew Maria from the handful of times she came to stay with us throughout my life. We’d always catch up on a few things but she was never around long enough for us to truly get to know one another. I saw her as this poised, elegant, and naturally beautiful enigma. She was independent, always traveling and building a successful life for herself. I admired her. Maria had only been living in Austin for a couple of months. Within that short amount of time, she had rented what I deemed the “Snow White Cottage” in all its mythical stone-lined glory, landed a grueling yet rewarding job as a teacher at a juvenile detention center, and attracted a rock lead singer and guitarist hottie who only lived a couple blocks away. Within this seven-day period, the two of us bonded and connected like old friends. We laughed and opened up to each other about our personal lives during every car trip back and forth from downtown. I felt at home in her presence. Most importantly though, she gave me space. Whatever independent spirit hid in the depths of me, she conjured it out. She encouraged me to explore the city on my own while she was off healing lost children. Maria inspired me with her own stories about traveling alone and forming friendships with strangers. I told myself that if she could do it, I could too.

On my last day in Austin, from about one in the afternoon to nearly three in the morning, I explored the city until my legs were numb and my Vans ripped at the toes. I went in and out of endless “Keep Austin Weird” vintage shops, sneaking pictures and pretending not to see the signs urging me to do otherwise.

At the end of South Congress Street, I walked into what seemed like a thrift store, took a quick look at the abundance of Halloween costumes surrounding me in the middle of March, and was on my way out when the cashier pointed out my shirt.

“Are you wearing that for the concert tonight?”

His question threw me for a loop. By chance, I had grabbed my favorite Deftones band-tee out of a pile of clothes that morning. Surely there was no way they were actually here for South By Southwest. I would have known this. I would have bought my concert tickets way in advance. I told him, “I didn’t see them on the lineup.”

Turns out the universe has a great sense of humor. The headliner for the massive Lady Bird Lake concert caught the flu, and the Deftones, already on tour, filled in last minute. One of my favorite bands of all-time was going to be in Austin at 8 PM. The kicker? It was a free show.

I had some time to kill before the concert and decided to head to a bar I’d walked past a few times. The entire place, inside and out, was something out of a fairytale. All of the eccentric and beautiful musicians congregated there like woodland elves in need of a pre-show potion, or many. With my head held high, I walked straight to the bar and sat down; on my left were two traveling ladies in their twenties and on my right was a woman holding the margarita I should have ordered instead of a Corona. It was my last day in the city and I had been in and out of bars alone a few times. I knew what to do. I heard Maria’s voice reminding me to let gobe open, and dive in. I introduced myself to all three women sitting next to me and, before long, neither one of us could shut up. As fate would have it, I quickly discovered that one of my new friends was from Boston like myself. She worked for the successful brand, Timberland, and was attending the festival with a few of her coworkers. “What do you do? Who are you with?” she asked. I explained the writing project, the fact that I was traveling by myself for the first time, my plans to write for a living in the future, everything. She listened intently and explained that many companies, now more than ever, were on the hunt for writers – young, friendly, and charismatic people to go to events like SXSW and document their experiences. My eyes widened. She encouraged me to keep writing, to start a blog, and to reach out to her as a friend in the industry. There I was, receiving words of encouragement from someone I had already grown to respect. I was forming connections, talking about art, music, my future, and began to feel my pieces getting sewn back together again.

I exchanged numbers with my new friends, left a tip on the wooden bar, and set off on the next journey toward Lady Bird Lake for the concert. I couldn’t have timed anything better and was one of the first people to land a spot only fifteen feet away from the largest stage in Austin. That’s what happens when you’re a tad early and the last-second “secret” Deftones concert hasn’t reached everyone’s radars yet. I stood patiently and watched as, slowly but surely, thousands of people came flooding in. What was once a vast green landscape quickly became a boisterous cluster of hipsters. Beside me, while waiting for the show to start, I met another band from California who had just left their gig to watch one of their main inspirations in action. “I can’t believe they’re here!” they kept repeating. They complimented my shirt and, suddenly, I’d made new friends. We instantly hit it off and they promised to protect me from the moshing when the time came. Turns out I wasn’t experiencing this concert alone at all.

An hour later, at the peak of the show, I was merely a tiny speck – shaken fully awake within a sweaty mass of screaming, dancing, and moshing fans. Every hair on my body stood high throughout the entire concert. I was in the thick of it, smack dab in the middle of the action. The combination of exhilaration, euphoria, and the fear of being shoved to death by a two-hundred pound moshing meathead, made for an out-of-body experience. I felt myself bleed into the moment as if the night was infinite. At one point, Chino Moreno, the lead singer, walked among the audience and his arm grazed mine. I must’ve asked myself how any of this was real about a thousand times.

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The show ended too soon and I thirsted for more as the sea of people dispersed. I  searched for the band I’d befriended, but they were nowhere to be found. I followed the mass back into downtown, still running on a high from what had just happened. Eventually I found my way back to 6th Street and decided it was time to hit up my favorite venue, just one last time for one last drink. My entire body was throbbing but this had to be done. I was on my way to the far end of 6th Street when I felt someone grab my arm. “Hey, you! Wait up!” As though the universe still had a few more tricks up its sleeve, I had been spotted within the late-night 6th Street drunk sea of chaos. My band friends from the concert picked me apart from thousands of people. “I saw your shirt” the drummer said. I couldn’t help but laugh. My Deftones shirt was a genie, granting me all my Austin wishes. “You guys want to join me for a drink at Hotel Vegas?”

If any place could recreate the same magic I felt coming from the basement during my parents’ grunge parties, Hotel Vegas was it. On the outside the venue looks like a cheap southern motel from a Quentin Tarantino film. Myself and the band got to know each other on the way there. Turns out the lead singer was Azorean and spoke fluent Portuguese, just like me. The universe, again. The flickering neon “Hotel Vegas” sign greeted us at the entrance and the five of us walked, through thick clouds of smoke, into the party I had been waiting for.

When I was ten and allowed access into my parents’ basement parties, I knew that as much as I felt part of it all, it wasn’t my time yet. Here I was brought back into that world, only now I could truly live it. I was one of the writers, talking to other aspiring writers, musicians, dancers, creative people of all kinds. We were all feeding off of each other’s energy. I danced my heart out. I let myself go completely until all of my “weird” was out for everyone to see. I didn’t give a shit about anything. I laughed until beer came out of my nose as my lead singer friend did “the Carlton” when the ‘80s music came on. The two of us attracted a crowd of dancers and all I could see was blurred bodies and light. I let that light consume me. I don’t know how long this party lasted. I don’t remember every inspiring conversation I had. What I do remember is the moment I felt myself watching this scene from afar, like a film. I realized that everything I had attracted in front of me, I accomplished on my own. I felt whole again.