“Depression seeps into your body and sits like a weight on your chest and your head, on every part of you—even the parts you’ve never known.”
They always told me that I was deep feeler. But only I ever knew just how deeply I felt the world: It was as if the volume and brightness were turned up so much that even my bedroom walls were screaming at me. For much of my life, I didn’t know that was unusual—I thought everyone cried themselves to sleep. I thought everyone felt so overwhelmed sometimes that every nerve in their body lit on fire and their chest tightened and their lungs heaved and their heart raced and they screamed until their throat was swollen and sore.
I screamed and cried until my face was red and swollen. My family knew what I felt on a surface level, and they assumed I’d grow out of whatever these emotional outbursts were. There was a gap between what I felt and what they knew, what was real.
I convinced myself that no one wanted to help and if they did, nothing would improve. I didn’t believe in myself enough to believe my mother when she’d hold my shaking body and tell me to breathe, that it was going to be okay, that she loved me and she always would. I’d scream back because in those moments, I thought screaming was the only way to get the poison out.
In talking to my therapist now, every fit I had makes sense. But having persistent panic attacks from before the age of three, I didn’t know what a healthy brain felt like. I thought it was all part of the pain of growing.
As I got older, that gap split farther and farther. My mother helped me cope with triggers in my life. To her and to those around me, I was less neurotic and more functional. But I was just learning how to hold it in until I could scream or run or write or sit in our ginkgo tree.
In the first grade, I developed a fear of math that bordered on phobia. During my math quizzes and tests, I would lock myself in the single stall bathrooms and cry. Even though I failed most of them, I somehow managed to get good grades. My mother remembers me being a good student, but having a fear of failure.
My family thought that crying was a Julia thing, having uncontrollable fits of anger and fear was a Julia thing, being unable to be outside if there were too many bees or being too scared to swim with my friends at the beach was a Julia thing. The part of my mind that told me to fear and to overthink and to be angry and to hate myself was a Julia thing.
In high school, the gap grew wider until one day, it snapped shut and everything I thought was real crumbled before me.
My fears and insecurities manifested themselves entirely in my obsession with perfection. I used academics to push away my emotional struggle—doing every homework assignment, studying for every test, spending every night at home doing endless hours of work. Little by little, I achieved my goals. I was in the high-level classes; teachers loved me; my parents were proud; but I hated myself even more. I seemed happy because I cried alone and told very few people how much I hated everything I did or how I cried before every test, expecting failure. Nothing I did was good enough, I was never good enough. I got awards and was inducted into every honors society I could be in. By graduation, I was in the top twenty percent of my class of sixty-six girls. But I didn’t feel any of that, nothing brought me satisfaction or confidence. Any confidence my family saw in me was a thin shell that shattered every time I was alone.
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I started having unhealthy eating patterns—I counted every calorie I ate, stopped letting myself eat more than one portion at a meal, cut out snacks entirely, and worked out relentlessly. But I never stopped crying every time I looked in the mirror. I stopped having a period for eleven months, a common sign of being underweight. As I fell deeper and deeper into darkness, I began to hate waking up in the morning—I hated any reminder of life. I saw no reason for my existence, no worth in my breath, no validity in my life. After continually burying it for about one year, I broke.
I didn’t swallow any of the pills, but I got pretty damn close. I remember feeling nothing—I was shaking, but I wasn’t scared. When you hold death in your hand, everything else disappears but the one choice you have to make and either you make it or someone makes it for you.
I remember standing in my bathroom—tears long drained out of me—and pouring Advil into my hand until it overflowed. That was the only end I could see, the only way out of my head. As I lifted the pills to my mouth, I heard my mother move downstairs, and something inside of me lost all control. I collapsed into a sobbing mess on the floor, Advil scattered everywhere.
Every time someone told me to stop complaining about a test or a track meet because I always did well and nothing was wrong with my life, I would laugh it off—rarely screaming at them like I wanted to. I wanted so badly to yell and cry and tell them how miserable I felt, but when I did, they would only push harder against me. They didn’t believe me.
The primary issue with mental health that I’ve experienced is that so often no one knows. In high school, I remember regularly hearing my classmates tell me how perfect my life was. They would gush about my perfect handwriting and my perfect clothes and my perfect grades. But they didn’t know that since the sixth grade, I’d been hearing voices in my head every time I took a math test and that the voices screamed at me, telling me I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t worth shit. They didn’t know that I cried every day and felt completely alone no matter how many people told me they loved me. They didn’t know that I had tried to die because the pain inside of me became too much. No one knew.
In August of 2015, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The treatment was a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Zoloft, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). I began missing class biweekly to visit my psychiatrist and psychologist. Suddenly I became the girl who was mysteriously absent quite often, always going to vague “doctors’ appointments.”
At this point only a few of my friends knew. And even then, they weren’t sure what to do with me. I’ve never blamed them for this—we were eighteen, we were all struggling, I wasn’t their responsibility. How could I expect them to know how to be friends with someone spending all of her energy on staying alive. At the time, I was unable to be good to them—I couldn’t understand that they loved me for who I was. Until someone sat across from me and put a name to my mind and told me that I’d soon know what happiness felt like, I didn’t know how sick I was.
Zoloft and CBT let me feel true happiness for the first time. I continued to struggle—undergoing treatment for mental illness stretches far beyond therapy sessions and medication. I learned how to filter my thoughts and identify what was wrong and what was okay. I learned to take tests without having panic attacks. I learned to believe in my ability to love and be loved. I learned to hold myself up when everything was pushing against me. I learned how to breathe on my own.
My episodes of depression and anxiety became fewer and shorter, but they did not disappear. I was still struggling, but I was getting better.
Returning to New York in January, everything changed. Slowly, almost invisibly, I slipped down. My anxiety came raging back as did the panic attacks; school scared me again; I was afraid to make more friends, so I clung to the ones I had. During the last few weeks of school, I cried multiple times every day. Sometimes out of stress, sometimes because I couldn’t stop. And again, reality and my mind split. But no one knew.
Winter break was confusing and long—coming home an entirely different person and trying to pick up with your old life in your old town and your old house, nothing makes sense. But during break I fell deeply in love and was loved back. I mended old relationships and my new ones stayed just as strong. I had never been so full of love and happiness in Memphis. Home finally felt right.
New York quickly became more of a home than Memphis ever was. School was difficult, but I did well—and I fell in love with it. I wasn’t going to therapy, but I was still on medicine. To this day, I’ve never been as happy as I was during those fall and winter months.
I went to therapy a few times before leaving for the summer. I told my therapist that I could feel myself slipping but I couldn’t stop—I was too tired, too overworked. I went up on my medicine. But still, I slipped down.
The darkness became comfortable. I enjoyed the misery because in it, feeling depressed was the only reminder that I was alive, the only thing I could count on. So, I leaned in and let it take over my body until I opened my eyes and gasped for air that wasn’t there. I told everyone I was fine. I looked fine.
My illnesses pushed me over so many edges that I became numb to my emotional cycles. I was a body and nothing else.
Summer bled into fall ever so slowly. My panic attacks swelled—Klonapin was the only way I could stop shaking long enough to speak. I felt hopeless and alone even with those I loved telling me they would always be there. I was unknowingly pushing my friends away—I coveted the gap between how I felt and what they knew. I opened my eyes every morning wanting to close them again. Depression seeps into your body and sits like a weight on your chest and your head, on every part of you—even the parts you’ve never known. It makes its way slowly through every vein and every hair until you would rather be buried alive than live in your own head.
On October 3, 2017, I woke up as I did most mornings, but this time I couldn’t move. My body tightened in on itself. My chest closed its doors. My face glued itself to my pillow. I’d had episodes like this before; I’d missed class and ditched plans when my sadness was too much. But I’d never felt as deeply as I did that day. Before, my suicidal thoughts had been in and out of my head, like musings of what the world would do, what it would feel like, if it would be easier. But this time, I truly wanted to die—I felt unworthy of the space I was taking up in the world. Thankfully, I was too depressed to have enough energy to leave my bed—I still thank every God there is for taking away my energy that day.
It isn’t until being on the other side that you know the depth of your pain. I’m lucky—to have a mother with a master’s degree in social work and a devoted empathy, to have a net in New York that catches me every time, to be loved the way I’m loved. I’m lucky to have people who love me enough to shake me until words spill out and they find the gap themselves. I owe my life to the people who shook me that Tuesday and to my doctor who prescribed an adjunct pill, Abilify, to pull me up. I’m lucky because it worked and I listened and I confessed and I looked at the gap before I lost my grip.
I’m lucky to write this. I’m lucky that I found happiness again.
Now, most people close to me are aware of my struggle, but very few know the severity. Sometimes I’m afraid it’s an excuse and that this is all I my head. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? This all is in my head. Every bit of this fucked up part of me is inside of my brain. I get better, then worse, then better. Never knowing when I’ll slip back down. What makes depression so difficult is that you can’t tell when you’re slipping down—you can’t tell until you feel the blood running from your arms. Then you remember that you’re depressed, you remember that you’re not okay, you remember that something is wrong, that everything is wrong, that nothing is wrong. You remember it all at the exact same time and you force everything out of you in bloody tears until your mother is on her way to get you and you’ve stood at the edge so many times you’ve memorized the building across the street with the guy who smokes on his fire escape and the kid who does her homework in the window every night. Writing becomes hell because you want to forget how you feel, but it only reminds you of what you can’t forget and what you never will. The pain is so bad that you feel it in your chest, you feel it in your heart, you feel it in your hands, you feel it in your throat every morning.
For the first time in my life, I have enough hope to know how strong I am. I have enough confidence to write about the pain I’ve been fighting for the past nineteen years and will continue fighting for as long as I live. For the first time in my life, what I feel and what is reality are starting to look more and more alike with each passing day. And I’m not just coping, I’m happy.