Day 1: Lewis

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His name is Lewis.

I adopted him from a breeder, and the very first time I held him, he struggled so much that I had to pin him between against my mouth to keep him from falling. For the longest time, he didn’t want anything to do with me, and truth be told, I felt a little betrayed by that. I called him my “problem child”, and joked about how much he hated me.

Nonetheless, I kept coming around because… well, what else could I do? I had adopted him. I was all he had – the one who fed him, protected him, kept him clean. I would hold him for the short periods of time that he would let me, and I would whisper to him, “it’s okay. I’m your mother. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Every day, he would stay with me for longer periods of time. He would stare at me from across the room, inside his cage, hiding in back corners and beneath dark shadows, big, black eyes glittering like diamonds. I began to see bits of myself in his personality – in how anxious he was, just like me. In how much he really rejected change, just like me. He liked things to be familiar and safe and warm – but he learned fast. He never bit me, no matter how scared he was. He never challenged me, even when he did run away. He was a gentle soul, who learned his name fast and watched my every move meticulously. He was a mad genius and a nervous wreck, just like me. We stressed each other out all the time, but we understood each other too.

Eventually, he came to accept me as a safe space. In unfamiliar rooms, he would cling to me like a small child. When he was afraid, I would hold him and whisper to him, and he would relax. And when he was calm and safe in his cage, he would get excited to see me. He ran to me and crawled across my shoulders and licked my hands with his tiny, pink tongue in anticipation of treats.

His name is Lewis, my sweet, anxious problem child.

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Why It Is Important to Talk When You Aren’t Okay

As human beings, we are not always okay.

We are not consistently positive, every single moment of every day. We are not always right. We are not always kind. We have moments where we feel broken and discouraged and hopeless and cruel.

And I’m going to tell you a secret: you don’t always have to be okay.

This should not be a secret. Because I think we have all generally accepted this idea that people are not perfect. We say, “to err is human”, and we expect that everyone will, at some point in their lives, make a mistake, or get hurt, or be down and depressed and lost. And yet, despite all this, we still make an attempt to hide it. We still think that we will be judged for being flawed – or, alternatively, we are judged for being flawed.

It has been a long time since I tried to hide the fact that I wasn’t okay. I’ve worn my status of ‘not okay’ quite proudly for a while now – speaking up about my experience with depression and anxiety, my struggle with toxic people in my life, as well as the simple daily struggles that I think all of us go through. My experience is not a particularly unique one – I think that many of us deal with these issues, if not all of us, at one point or another. And yet, despite this, I have been described by people – both personally and online – as “really messed up” or “seriously ill”, not because of the things that I have gone through, but because I chose to speak up about them. I never tried to hide the fact that I wasn’t okay at certain times in my life, and for some people, this was unacceptable – a sign of weakness.

What these people didn’t see was just how therapeutic this was for me. Speaking up allowed me the chance to see that I wasn’t alone. That other people experienced the same thoughts and feelings and issues that I was experiencing. Some of these people went public, like I did – expressing these issues loud and proud for all to see, while others simply whispered it to me behind closed doors. And either way, I am grateful for them – because they helped me. They relieved my guilt, my fear, my need to repress. They freed me. Because all of a sudden, I wasn’t only speaking for me – I was speaking for us.

And, on the other hand, I have known many people who tried to fit into a certain image of flawless. I think many of us know these people as well – the hyper-yogis and gurus who never have a negative thing to say. Their social media platforms are full of inspiration and positive thinking and little more. And while inspiration is great – necessary, even, there is such a thing as going too far in this direction.

Because when these flawless people do, inevitably, show a flaw, they cannot accept this. They cannot hear it. They must blame everyone else for their flaw, or deny that it is a flaw, or push it deep down, never to see the light of day, never to be worked on and fixed and improved upon.

And often times, these flawless people are so insecure, so afraid, so depressed, and never allowed to acknowledge the source of this, because they do not allow themselves to talk about it. They are too afraid that they will be judged, or looked down upon. They are so frequently told that they will not be strong, or admirable, or acceptable, if they are suffering. And we are all suffering, at one time or another.

Ultimately, you do more harm to yourself and to those around you when you do not allow yourself to discuss the fact that you might not always be okay.

End of day, life is not about being perfect. Life is about growth. And you achieve this growth by confronting your pain, rather than pushing it down and ignoring it. Now, the way that you confront this pain can take many forms – whether you speak out about it openly, or with a trusted friend, or a therapist, or your personal diary, whatever the case may be. But regardless of the way that you choose to speak, there is nothing wrong with it. There should be no shame in the methods that you choose to better yourself, and there should be no cause for judgement either.

So if anyone makes you feel ‘lesser than’ because you choose to speak out about your problems, please keep in mind that that reveals more about them than it does about you. You are not ‘messed up’ or wrong – you are dealing with the natural problems that many of us deal with, and you are dealing with it in the way that works for you. Meanwhile, they will not allow themselves the same luxury. They are still caught up in this myth of perfection, or flawlessness, that none of us are truly capable of.

And if you are someone who will not allow yourself to speak out, then allow me to say this: I understand that it can be frightening. It might seem weird, and you might think that you will be judged, and maybe you will, but more than that, you will be received with love. You will find kindred spirits, so much more personal to you than they would otherwise be, because they understand what you have been through. They understand the workings of your mind.

And you can start slow, if you want to. Start by simply saying it to yourself. You can move on to speaking out when you feel more comfortable. But end of day, you need to speak out. You need to do it for yourself, and for the kindred spirits who feel silenced, alone, and frightened.

Emotional Maturity Does Not Mean Eternal Happiness

When I first realized that I have anxiety, the biggest lesson that I needed to learn was to not fight against it.

I think that fighting against unpleasant emotions is only natural. We don’t want to feel them, so we push them down. We deny that they’re happening. We try to move on, and if we can’t, if we wind up showing that unpleasant emotion in any way, then we feel guilty for it. We feel like we need to apologize.

The problem with that when it comes to anxiety is that it only makes anxiety worse. When a person with anxiety starts to feel stressed and they try to push that stress down – it doesn’t go away. It stays there, in the forefront of your mind, demanding to be heard and getting worse by the second. And the next thing you know, you are stressing yourself out because you know you are getting stressed. It progresses. It might even progress into a panic attack, for which you feel shame and guilt. It exhausts you, and it really puts a damper on your whole day, and it makes everything in life that much harder to do.

The best way to deal with anxiety is to just admit to yourself that you are anxious, and allow yourself to be anxious. Take the time to slow down. Talk to yourself about what you’re feeling. Figure everything out.

When you have anxiety, you have two options: you can push it down and make it really, really difficult to do anything in life. Or you can allow it to happen, and thus make it so that you can do anything you want, you just have to do it at a pace slower than people without anxiety.

Now, why am I saying this right now? Well, I am of the opinion that everyone – even people who don’t deal with anxiety – can apply this to their daily lives.

Let me give an example – the other day, I was feeling extremely frustrated. It had nothing to do with my anxiety, it was just your average, everyday, unpleasant emotion. It made me upset. It made me snap back at people all the time. It made me a general bitch to live with. And all the while, I was trying to tell myself to bury it down. Stop being so annoying to people. Why are you saying that, just shut up and stop feeling this already!

It wasn’t until I actually sat myself down and said, “okay, you’re frustrated for now, and that’s okay. Do whatever you need to do so that you can let it go” that I actually began to feel better. I gave myself permission to feel what I needed to feel, and that made it so much easier for me to stop dwelling in the negative.

And it’s this idea that I want to focus on, this idea of giving yourself permission to feel how you feel that I think is so important.

Because I think that we, as a society, have a very strict notion of how we should all feel.

In order to be stable role models, we need to feel strong, capable, in control, commanding, intelligent, always in the right.

In order to be good yogis, we need to feel peaceful, happy, accepting, optimistic, inspirational.

In order to be good adults, we need to feel as though we know what we are doing.

But the thing is, before we are any of these, we are human beings. And human beings experience the full gambit of emotions – pleasant or unpleasant, at any given time. We dangle this idea of perfect happiness before society’s face, telling society that that is the goal, that is the way to emotional maturity. But perfect happiness doesn’t exist, and trying to demand of ourselves that we feel that way ignores all the other ways that we feel.

Emotional maturity is not feeling happy and stable and pleasant all the time. Emotional maturity is accepting that you will feel any number of ways, and allowing yourself to feel that.

Not wallowing in it. Not pitying yourself for it. Just… allowing it. Let the storm come and pass, and remember that both will happen. There is no avoiding it. There is no reason to believe that it will last forever. And there is nothing wrong with it.

Because when you reject unpleasant emotions, they do not go away. Anger and sadness may not be as incessant or obvious as the symptoms of anxiety are, but they react in much the same way. When you try to push them down, they don’t actually go anywhere. They just stay with you, in the background, affecting everything you do and see and hear. They grow and they spread, and before you know it, the problem is even bigger than it initially was.

If you fight your emotions, then they will fight you right back.

So breathe. Have faith that this will pass, and it will. For now, just think about your situation, work it out, and do whatever you need to do to move beyond this.

Do Not Suffer in Silence

Hello. My name is Ciara Hall. It’s nice to meet you. That’s a lovely shirt you’re wearing; it really matches your eyes. And who am I, you ask? Well, I’m a lot of things, many of which aren’t relevant to the discussion that we’re having right now, so I won’t mention them. Instead, I will mention that I sometimes struggle with depression, and I almost always struggle with anxiety. I have dealt with suicidal thoughts off and on for pretty much my whole life, and although I am trying to break the habit and I have made significant improvement, I have also dealt with issues surrounding self-harm since I was about ten years old.

Again, it’s very nice to meet you.

I have been told by people in the past that I should not be so open about these issues. And, I mean, I don’t usually greet someone in quite the same way that I greeted you, humble reader. Usually, I’m a bit more discreet than all that. But that being said, I do not try to hide it either, and this little exchange between us is not the first time I have written about this. I mean, I sort of wish that I could say it was, because that would imply that this doesn’t occupy much of my brain space.

And I come from a rather private family, so it should come as no surprise that I have been criticized for talking about this by being told, “how do you think the people who care about you feel, having to read about that?” And I have no doubt, my mother did not wake up this morning thinking, “oh boy, I really hope that I can read about my daughter’s battle with depression today!” My grandmother does not want to know that I deal with anxiety; my sister does not want me to dig my nails into my skin in frustration. I know all of this. Every time that I write these articles, this exact thought crosses my mind.

And I am not writing these articles because I want them to worry, or feel bad, or anything like that. That is not the point. Truth be told, the point has very little to do with them. The point is me. The point is, I feel better when these thoughts exist outside of my own head. The point is, I know that there are people out there who are dealing with the exact same problems that I am, and I do not want those people to feel like they are dealing with them alone. The point is, these are pervasive issues that our society has been ignoring for far too long now, and somebody needs to stand up and speak about them; I cannot control the voices of other people, but I can control my own voice. And I choose to speak.

It just so happens, the unfortunate side-effect of this is that the people who care about me learn that my life isn’t exactly perfect.

And I hate to come across as callous and cruel here, but my answer to that is: so what? Nobody’s life is perfect. That’s just one of those things that we all know know and accept, one of those phrases that we pass around to make ourselves feel better about our own dumb lives. And yet, we never want to believe it when it comes to our loves ones. I know that I wish my loved ones never had to hurt. But the fact of the matter is, they do, even if it hurts me to know that they do.

The fact of the matter is, we all do.

Maybe your issue isn’t depression or mental illness, but you have an issue of some sort.

I have known people who spent their entire teenage years in the closet and hating themselves for it, and the only way to make things better was to come out to the world around them, even if there were those in their life who wished they hadn’t.

I have known people who have been hurt and abused, and despite that, lied about it for years, even to themselves. And the only way to stop the hurt and abuse was to come forward and talk about it, to deal with it, even if their loved ones did not want to hear that they had dealt with something so horrible.

I have also known people who claim to have the perfect life on social media, never once making a single complaint, and yet their eyes are hollow in every picture, their smile forced. When I see these people, I always wonder what they aren’t saying.

Because end of day, we are all suffering, to one degree or another. That is simply part of the human experience, and it’s unfortunate, but denying it won’t make it any better. And hiding your pain may make your loved ones a little bit less concerned, but it most certainly isn’t fair to you. Nobody should have to suffer in silence.

And, in a perfect world, revealing your pain to others shouldn’t make them shy away from you or angry. Rather, it should bring you closer; maybe my family doesn’t want to hear that I deal with depression and anxiety, but at least if they know, then they are aware of what is going through my head, and I have someone to turn to when things get particularly bad.

But I get it; the world doesn’t always work that way. Not everyone responds to things they don’t like in the most ideal fashion, but that still doesn’t mean that you should be silent. Rather, keep talking about it. Talk about your experience to anyone who you feel comfortable enough with, and either one of two things will happen: 1) those who don’t respond well will come around eventually, understanding that your safety and happiness sometimes needs to come before their comfort, or 2) you will find someone who does, in fact, accept you for all that you are, and lends an ear to your troubles when you need one.

Maybe we don’t want to hear that our loved ones are suffering, but our loved ones are suffering nonetheless. That’s just the nature of life. And if they are truly someone that you care about, then ask yourself this: is it not better to be there for them and do everything we can to alleviate their pain, rather than forcing them to suffer in silence?

Speak out. And more than that, lend an ear to someone who needs it. Because the truth is, we all need it, from time to time.

Why Depression is Not Romantic

When I was a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I read stories of girls with arms like mine. The girls with white lines drawn across their pale skin, carved there by blades and tainted by tears. Girls who caught the attention of the cute, sensitive boy in their class, the boy who saw her scars and knew what they meant. The boy who took her aside and kissed her scars and told her that she was beautiful regardless, that he would hold her close and take care of her, that he would never let her hurt again. The boy who loved her, not because there was more to her than her scars, but because he knew that she was sad and broken, and that he could protect her from the harsh world.

These stories were not the reason why I self-harmed, but they most certainly justified my doing so.

Just like when I was in my second year at university, studying literature because I wanted to be a great writer, and the professor made the statement to my class: “this poem is about depression, which is something that all great writers deal with. I don’t really think it’s possible to be a great writer without being broken.”

Well, that’s good news, I thought; I suppose I need to be broken then. Maybe this is just the price I pay to achieve my dreams.

I think, even at the time, I knew that what I was thinking was wrong.

Even then, I knew that the stories I wrote were not created in the black, ceaseless spirals of depression. They might have been inspired by it, from time to time, but no more than they were inspired by other aspects of my life. And, more importantly, they were written in those moments where I broke the surface, where I took in a gulp of air and thought that everything might be fine again, just before I sunk back below and lost all creative ability again.

Just like I knew that self-harm would not earn me love. No boy ever saw my scars and kissed them to make them better; now that I’m no longer thirteen years old, I don’t really think I’d want one to. All that my scars did was give me something to be ashamed of, something to pull my sleeves over and lie about when people asked me about them.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what did you do to your arm?”

“Oh, I was playing with my cat, and, well, this happened.”

Please. Please, don’t notice that it looks nothing like a cat scratch.

But even still, despite the fact that depression was not my gateway to genius, despite the fact that self-harm brought me more shame than it did love, there was still something so romantic about both ideas. About being the tortured artist, the Sylvia Plath, the Van Gogh. Forget the fact that they both cut their stories off before they were finished; they were beloved and mysterious, deep and thoughtful. And all I had to do to become them was give into what was already inside me, right?

We romanticize mental illness all the time, present it as something mysterious and unknown and darkly beautiful, but it isn’t. The reality of mental illness is laying in bed all day because you just can’t find the motivation to get up. The reality of mental illness is wearing long sleeves in the summer because you don’t want to risk anyone, not even the cute, sensitive boy in your class, to know your secret (because it is, after all, a secret). The reality of mental illness is panic attacks that leave you exhausted, fear that keeps you its prisoner, suicidal thoughts that threaten to cut your story off too soon, if you just give into them.

And the problem with romanticizing all of this is that it then justifies people to give into it.

All of this isn’t to say that no good can ever come from a mental illness; it can. Personally speaking, I believe that coming to terms with my mental illness and fighting it has made me a much stronger person than I would have otherwise been, but that is exactly my point; I needed to fight it. Fighting gave me ability. Fighting gave me more stories to tell than depression ever could have. Fighting made me feel as though I deserved, not only love, but a love that was worthwhile, a love that would see me, not as the broken soul that needs to be fixed, but as a person, as an equal. Fighting is what brought me here, to this place, to this day.

I honestly don’t know who or where I’d be today if I hadn’t fought, but I know it wouldn’t be romantic. It would be pitiful, a tragic tale to tell. And I am not a tragedy.

So if we have to romanticize anything in regards to mental illness, let’s romanticize the fight. Let’s talk about how strong survivors are to reach out and get help for themselves. Let’s praise those who managed to overcome suicidal thoughts, even when it seemed next to impossible. Let’s celebrate the ones who self-harmed at one point, but managed to pull themselves through it and stop altogether. Because when we romanticize mental illness itself, we are helping no one; when we encourage people to seek treatment and get help, we have the opportunity to save lives.

And, personally, I am tired of romances that focus so much on how loveable or genius someone is only because they are depressed.