Ever since high school, I knew my purpose was to serve others. I have always been passionate about mental health, and after receiving several years of education and experience in the field, I always thought I understood it too. It was not until I actually had to fight my own battle against depression and anxiety to gain a complete understanding of what it was truly like. I am very private with my personal life, and for a long time, I wanted to keep it that way. However, after praying long and hard about it, I knew my story needed to be shared with others in hopes of impacting lives in a positive manner.
- When was the first time you realized you were dealing with something beyond your control?
I realized something was wrong during my sophomore year in college. I would often wake up feeling extremely tired and would not have motivation to do anything. I would miss out on the classes I knew attendance was not mandatory. It would take me a long time to get out of bed, most of the time missing breakfast. People would always make jokes about how much I slept and I would laugh along too because I knew it was true. Then one day, as I was lying on bed, I thought to myself, “Man, I’ve been doing this a lot lately. I never have energy and always feel tired regardless of how much sleep I get.” I thought it was maybe depression but I brushed it off with the idea that it could be tied to a physical problem, such as a thyroid issue or vitamin deficiency. I went to the doctor to get my blood checked and everything came back normal. There were good and bad days. The good days made me think I was okay and there was nothing to worry about. I did not talk about it then, because at the time, I felt it was something I could handle. I was making A’s and B’s in school, going to work, and maintaining extracurricular activities. I had a lot going on at the time – I had two jobs and was involved in two organizations. Those things kept me distracted. It was not until I moved away and started graduate (grad) school. I started losing grip of my emotions. I would cry uncontrollably at the end of the day for no reason. I felt numb and lethargic almost every day and had no motivation to do homework. I had recurrent anxiety attacks, flaked out on plans with friends, and kept to myself. One day, I completely lost it. I broke down and felt like I could not breathe. I went to a dark place that is difficult to describe now, but I knew if I did not get help I was going to dig myself into a hole I would not get out from easily. This was one of my worst fears, feeling so low that no one could help me. I felt this impending doom inside me that I could not shake, and it told me I was in danger. In this moment, I knew I needed to do something. Either my depression or anxiety was going to control me or I was going to begin controlling it. The decision never looked so black and white.This is when I knew I needed to make a change.
- Was it hard to admit? Did someone help you realize it? Was there a denial phase? If so, how did you overcome the challenge of recognizing the issue in the first place?
I think coming to the realization that I was depressed was the most difficult for me. I was in denial for two years. I always brushed it off and figured it was just a phase or I would somehow magically get better on my own. Instead, it slowly got worse. I would bring it up every now and then to my close friends but I would not get into the details. I would casually touch on the subject, then retreat, and never bring it back up. Since I am seeking a career in the mental health field, I often questioned myself, “How am I going to help others when I cannot help myself?” I would exclaim, “I cannot even accept my own mental illness!” I felt like a hypocrite admitting I was dealing with depression. By this time, I had received extensive mental health training and education, yet I did not know how to go about it.
I felt guilty for feeling the way I did. I had supportive family, friends, and boyfriend – everything I needed and more. I knew other people who had it way worse than I did, and yet, persevered through it all. I felt I did not have the right to feel this way. Additionally, being vulnerable is one of the most difficult things for me to do. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I feel my culture is taught to brush things off, kick it under the rug, and deal with it on our own. And that is what I did. When I visited my hometown on the weekends, I would go straight to my room and not leave sometimes. My mom picked up on my behavior after a while so she often asked if something was wrong. I would blame it on my tiredness and she believed me. However, one day I felt compelled to tell someone exactly how I felt. The next time she asked if everything was okay, I broke down and told her everything. My mom has faced her own battles with depression and anxiety so she helped me through the whole thing. She encouraged me to go to the doctor and see a counselor. She talked me through the process and simply supported me. I did not tell her initially because I think I was still trying to figure out what was going on with me. Our family had a lot going on at the time and I did not want to be another worry. However, she did not judge me or diminish the way I was feeling. Having someone who has gone through what I was going through definitely made this journey a lot easier. I seriously do not know where I would be right now if I did not have her support. Her understanding, trustworthiness, and ability to make me feel I was not alone, ultimately helped me accept what I was going through.
This experience empowered me to better understand how to help my future clients. This journey prepared me to better understand what others are truly going through when they are battling feelings of depression and anxiety. I learned mental illnesses do not discriminate against mental health professionals. They are not the exception simply because they specialize in the area. They are human too and have feelings like everyone else. Truth of the matter is, you can read the textbooks, blogs, books, and learn about it all day long, but it is not until you are the one who is dealing with those emotions when you truly come to understand what it is like to be in that situation.
- Do you know what triggered your anxiety, depression, etc.?
I thought about this question a lot. I tried to pinpoint everything that could have made me feel this way. I thought about unresolved childhood issues and familial history of mental illnesses. And although these factors may have had impacted me in some way, I was aware I had cultivated bad habits and maladaptive thinking patterns during my teenage years and carried them on to adulthood.
Once I started college, and stepped out of my typical routine, I slowly sunk into this hole because I was not mentally prepared to deal with the changes. I never really developed healthy eating habits or effective ways to organize myself. I realized I was not good at prioritizing deadlines, and on top of everything else, I was a perfectionist. I wanted to do things a certain way and would not stop until an assignment or project was the way I wanted it to be. This mentality fed into procrastination. I learned people procrastinate for one or two reasons. The first is, fear of failing. If you do not start an assignment then how could you fail, right? The second is, being overwhelmed with information so you put it off because you do not know where to begin. This also ties to being disorganized and having poor time management skills. My procrastination immobilized me in several ways. I always thought of excuses such as, “I cannot start until I eat, take a nap, exercise, etc. because then I will feel more energized.” I would put off assignments until the last minute and pull all-nighters in order to complete them. As a result, I would wake up late and rarely go to class if I did not need to. And this worked for a while. I would maintain A’s and B’s and convinced myself to believe I worked best under pressure. This idea quickly changed when I started grad school.
Moving to a new town for grad school (without knowing anyone) terrified me. I tried not to think about it too much but the fear of moving away from family, friends, and everything familiar, sat at the back of my brain. College students are normally excited to leave town and make new friendships – but that was not me (lol). I became too comfortable where I was. Once grad school started, I began to feel more pressure. I wanted to do well, and at some point, also wanted to prove that I belonged there too. I think it is natural for people to want to perform well, but we all know it comes with a price. I sacrificed sleep, free time, and my wellbeing. I was so hard on myself when I failed and cared too much about what other people thought of me. I was hardly ever living in the present moment. I was always thinking ten steps ahead and constantly thinking about the future. I was chasing a feeling. My mentality was, “Once I accomplish this, I will feel relieved, happy, or less stressed.” I had no idea what I was actually doing to myself. In the midst of the chaos, I completely lost myself. I am passionate about my profession and enjoy learning about it, but let’s be real, reading textbooks, writing endless reports/papers is exhausting. At some point, I was no longer enjoying the process.
I needed to do things I once enjoyed doing.The hobbies I would enjoy in high school were let go in order to focus on my career. This meant letting of drawing, painting, reading, and sports. It made sense why I was where I was. I was no longer interested in my wellbeing. I would feel guilty engaging in these hobbies because I felt obligated to spend any free time doing homework or with loved ones. I wanted to do well in school, and at the same time, be a supportive daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, etc. I was spreading myself thin.
My mentality has shifted since then. In order for people to get the best version of myself, this includes: family, friends, colleagues, future clients, etc., I must put myself first – physically and mentally.
- What steps did you take in order to face the issue?
Once I accepted I had an issue beyond my control, and finally told my mom how I felt, the next step was to seek help. I decided to first contact the counseling center at my university. I called and they confirmed they did not have any openings and only accepted same-day appointments. They offered to put me on a waitlist so they could call back and get me in as soon as a slot was available. However, with my grad school schedule, I knew that was going to be difficult to do so I told them I would try again another time. Honestly, I felt extremely discouraged afterwards because it took a lot of courage for me to call. When you are in that state of mind, you find any reason not to seek help. It took a while to try something else again. It was not long before my mom mentioned her positive experience with antidepressants. She recommended to see the doctor for a prescription. I was always skeptical about antidepressant medication. I was educated about the side effects and knew how hard it could be to get off of it. I also knew about mixed research on its effectiveness in treating depression. Then again, I was also aware people’s bodies reacted differently so I did not want to make assumptions (or have negative thoughts) on why the medication would not work for me. In that moment, I knew I needed to try something so I went to the doctor.
- What was your experience in dealing with what you were going through? The experience can be your visit with the doctor, therapist, etc.
I would say the doctor’s visit lasted about 10 minutes. They asked quick questions, I imagine this was a screening, then concluded I was depressed, and prescribed Zoloft. Once again, I left feeling discouraged and as if I was brushed off. I expected an intimate conversation but also understood doctors do not necessarily have time for that. (This is the role of a counselor or therapist.) When I asked about side effects, they were minimalized as if it was nothing to be concerned about. I felt terrible after that visit. However, after much thought, I figured why not try the medication. On the first day, I felt fine. The second and third day, I felt nauseous. I was vomiting every other hour and could not leave my bed. On top of that, I had insomnia. I literally felt like I was going to lose my mind. I did not last four days on the medication. Research indicated it could take approximately two to four weeks for it to settle in. I just could not do it. I could not imagine reliving the side effects one more day.
Please let me be clear, I am not sharing my personal experience to pill shame anyone. Medication works for some people, and for others, it does not. My bodyreacted sensitively to the medication and I felt it would be difficult for me to overcome the side effects.I believe it is a trial and error process and finding what works best. Personally, I was not willing to go through the process again so I made the decision to stop. It was also a scary step to take because I knew I needed to find an alternative way to manage my depression and anxiety. A voice inside my head was questioning, “Well, if medication does not work, and you are still not better on your own, then what will work?” At one point, I felt I was always going to feel this way.
I decided to see a counselor who had a specialty in depression and anxiety. The idea of talking to a stranger about personal problems seemed uncomfortable at first. After a while, I realized it was nice having someone unfamiliar looking in and providing a different perspective. Seeing a counselor really helped me in a lot of ways because I learned about myself on a deeper level. I cried probably every time we met (again, vulnerability is hard) but I always ended up feeling much stronger at the end.
- What was the outcome on the methods used to face the challenge(s)? How effective did you find each method to be?
After a session or two, my counselor felt confident in addition to counseling, I should also try taking medication to see better results. I followed her advice and was prescribed Effexor. I joined a Facebook group of people who were also taking this medication. I read mixed reviews about it so I conducted my own research. I discovered it was one of the most difficult medications to taper off from, so naturally I felt nervous to take it, but gave it another shot. Once again, my body reacted strongly to the side effects so I stopped. I continued seeing my counselor though. She helped me by giving me goals to work on, providing a listening ear, and other resources.
I decided it was also time to turn to my friends and boyfriend to let them know how I was feeling. I asked for their support and prayers, and of course, everyone was supportive. Being vulnerable with them made me feel free. I did not feel like I had to wear a mask or pretend to be someone else anymore. To this day, I am constantly learning to be vulnerable with others.
I also read books to gain more perspectives and shift my thoughts. I read books about depression, anxiety, and spirituality. I tuned in to audiobooks and podcasts by spiritual teachers, and honestly, they have changed my life. It was also important for me to learn about my personal strengths and weaknesses. I studied my personality type and continued learning about myself outside my counseling sessions. I also focused on my basic needs such as getting enough sleep. I took things day by day. Also, I trained my mind to spot negative thoughts so I could turn them into positive ones. I kept a gratitude journal and a personal journal to write down my thoughts on paper whenever I was feeling down. This was my way of putting negative emotions to rest.
These things may sound easier said than done, but trust me, it is possible. It has been a long journey and I am still learning what does and does not work for me.
- How do you think you are managing so far?
I feel very grateful and blessed to say I am not where I was a year ago. I still sometimes experience feelings of depression and anxiety, but I manage them by following the advice and techniques I learned through counseling and reading. I have not booked a counseling appointment since March because I feel it is not needed at this time. However, if I were to regress on my progress, making an appointment would be the first thing I would do. Lately, I have been solely focusing on meeting my basic needs such as getting enough sleep and doing things I personally enjoy. So far this has been enough for me. I am also slowly incorporating exercise into my daily routine.
- No one is perfect, we are all constantly trying to better ourselves, what are you currently working on? (If you don’t mind sharing.)
There are many things that are still a work in progress.
From a cognitive perspective,I am becoming aware of my feelings. If I begin to feel overwhelmed, deep breathing, focusing on a specific object, or touching a textured object, helps me calm down. If I am in full panic mode, talking to someone who understands helps me best.
From a personal development perspective, I am working on no longer caring about what other people think. Outperforming is not a priority either, I simply strive to be me by putting forth my best effort in everything I do. I no longer plan assignments weeks in advance, unless it is truly necessary. I am also learning to be flexible when things do not go as planned. I create a daily to-do list. This is helping me prioritize and organize the day. I am learning to say no without feeling guilty; I intentionally use these days for self-care. I am also learning to distance myself from negative individuals, whether it is cleaning up social media, or simply not engaging with certain people anymore. And lastly,I am working on living in the present moment, becoming comfortable with uncertainty, and going with the flow.
- If you could go back to your old self, what would you tell yourself?
If I could go back, I would tell myself, “You are much stronger than you think and you can get through anything you set your mind to.” I would remind myself that it is okay to fail. Also, I would remind myself that I am human, imperfections and mistakes will happen.
Treat yourself as you would treat a best friend. Do not take life too seriously or worry about insignificant things. Be present and enjoy yourself. Everything else will fall into place the way it is meant to.
- What would you tell someone in your old shoes?
You are not alone. I know it may feel that way sometimes but I promise there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way you do, or have felt that way at some point in their lives. Being vulnerable is difficult but more people need to hear from you, they need to know your story. Your loved ones need to understand how you feel. Support is very important and you will be surprised how many people genuinely care about your wellbeing.
Also, I want you to know you are important. Your purpose matters in this world. Do not believe irrational thoughts telling you cannot get out of this dark place. Keep fighting. Taking the first step is the hardest, but once it is taken, it slowly becomes easier to seek help.
If you are reading this, I hope my experience resonates and helps you in some way. Whether it is gaining a better understanding of what it is like for someone battling a mental illness, helping you realize you are not alone, or motivating you to seek help. If you have any questions, want to share your story, need someone to talk to, or simply want to reach out, please feel free to contact me via Instagram (@mayraelizabeth_), or Twitter (@mayrasanchez_).
If you are interested, here is a list of books that helped me change my life and ways of thinking:
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson
- When Panic Attacks by David Burns M.D.
- Wishes Fulfilled – by Dr. Wayne Dyer
- Change your thoughts – Change your life by Dr. Wayne Dyer
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
If you are in a crisis and require immediate intervention, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24/7.