By: Angela Escobar
For Diana, high school was a social nightmare. College was filled with hours of studying in isolation. After graduation, she landed a job that forced her socialize with others. She had a phone at her work desk that she had to pick up when it rang. She had co-workers she had to speak with and a boss she had to deal with. One day, her anxiety reached its peak and she fell over with panic at her desk, causing everyone to worry. Her depression and anxiety had gotten so bad that after a while, she was unable to function at work, and so she quit. When I met her, this 31-year-old woman had not been able to work for almost five years.
I asked her one day: “Tell me what you’re like when you are well?”
She couldn’t answer. So I asked: “When was the very last time you felt well, felt happy?”
She told me she had many happy memories from her childhood and as a teenager—family vacations, holiday get-togethers, birthday parties, picnics at the park, and playing sports with her dad. But the last time she felt any sort of wellness or happiness as an adult was five years ago when she and her sister had traveled out of town to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. It had rained the entire weekend and they still had an awesome time together.
I smiled at her. Finally, a ray of hope shined through in the darkness that always seemed to loom over Diana.
But this hope quickly faded when she said: “I don’t think any of these memories constitutes wellness though.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Yeah. These memories of me being well and happy are just a form of escapism. Yes, they are nice to look back on, but they are not truly examples of me being well. They’re just examples of me escaping from the difficulties of reality, of “real-life”, and being allowed a chance to breathe.”
I looked at her…
Diana could not even face the fact that she had been happy for those few days. I realized that some people can’t accept the possibility that they could—that they can—feel and/or be well. She rejected who she was when she was feeling great and instead embraced the all-too-familiar coziness of her mental illness blanket, just wrapped herself up in it.
She told me what she was like when she was depressed and anxious with such ease and knowingness, and accepted it wholeheartedly. But could not—would not—tell me what she was like when she was well, and when she was finally able to—she couldn’t accept it! Instead, she sat there and told me that she “officially” had major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and was currently being tested for adult autism and avoidant personality disorder. She told me she hoped that these would give her some identity and provide her with a cause for her problems and allow her to come to terms with the way her life had turned out.
This woman was not only accepting the diagnoses that were given to her, she owned them. She was identifying with her diagnosis. She had become the poster child for depression, anxiety, autism, and someone who had something so wrong with her personality that there was an “official” label for it—avoidant personality disorder. She was actually hoping that these labels would give her an identity, assure her there was indeed something very wrong with her, and allow her to accept the fact that her life was basically sad and lousy.
“So then what does constitute wellness to you, Diana?” I asked her.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been well or happy,” she answered.
“Could it be,” I proposed to her, “that those moments of wellness and happiness go unnoticed because perhaps we are just more self-aware when we are wallowing in drowning in our own depression and anxiety? Do you give just as much attention to your wellness as you to your depression and anxiety?”
If you really think about it, doesn’t it work the other way around too? What if falling victim to our depression and anxiety is actually our way of escaping our “real-life difficulties”? I know from personal experience that it is much easier to just go back into that dark bedroom in the morning and bury yourself under those thick warm blankets…and just stay there…all day. It is much easier to use substances (whatever those substances may be) to dull the pain, numb yourself, relax your body, and put you to sleep for hours…hoping that by the time you wake up the day is just…over. You won’t have to deal with whatever BS the bright light of day brings. God forbid you actually have to deal with traffic, with people, with social interaction, with showering, with eating…with life. You can’t be coping or dealing with life if you aren’t living it. That is a form of escapism in its own right.
But in all fairness…
I was once her. The first time a doctor labeled me I was so relieved. For the first time I knew what was wrong with me and why. Everything was suddenly clear—it was laid out in black and white in all those little brochures and informational packets they gave to me. I could begin to accept why things had been the way they were, and how they were going to be from here on out. The diagnosis gave this frightening experience a shape, a form, a reason, and it just all made sense. It made me feel like I was not alone—hundreds of thousands of people were labeled with the same thing—there was something wrong with them too. Finally, there was a name to it. I could call it something—it was no longer a mystery shrouded with fear—something that was happening to me. Finally, there was a face to it. And it was mine. I became a number. I became a statistic. I became my symptoms. I was the face of mental illness for a long time.
Some people were never given a chance to really experience what it was like to just be well. They could not remember the last time they felt genuinely well. I personally know a handful of people who simply never had a chance—they were born right into miserable (at times even traumatic) circumstances and had to grow up caught in an unforgiving whirlwind of adversities from infancy right into adulthood. For me to ask them—demand that they tell me—what they were like when they were well is unfair. Do they even really know? Did they ever get a chance to really find out what it felt like to be well? To experience real love and acceptance?
I recall engaging in a casual conversation with one of these individuals while we were out taking a walk. He said something so funny that I burst out in laughter. I mean, it was loud joyous belly laughter. He stood there watching me in wonder, perhaps even a little scared. I remember my laughter made him so uncomfortable that he asked me to stop laughing. He told me that if I laughed too much something terrible might happen to me. Really? Did that even make any sense? My laughter subsided and I felt strange, almost annoyed. But I had to acknowledge that this person was coming from a place that I could never understand—a dark place where he was made to believe that there were negative consequences for those who showed any signs of joy and happiness. I reached out and gave him a friendly tap on the arm. “You’re a funny guy, you know that? You make me laugh.” He simply continued to walk with me as he gave me a puzzled look. I could tell he didn’t know whether to believe me or not. Him? Funny? Impossible. Had I told him instead that he was a miserable, depressed, anxious person, he would have probably more easily accepted—even agreed—with it.
Back to Diana and her “wellness is just escapism” concept…
I told her: “I’m not asking you what you think wellness should be, could be, might be, what it is, or what it isn’t. I’m asking you what you are like when you are well. Be it one moment, one hour, one day, one week…what were you like during that period of time? Don’t allow your diagnosis to bog you down in irrelevant or false details. Don’t doubt yourself. Just focus on the question and let the words come out. Trust yourself.”
And with that, Diana leaned back and took a breath. I guess she realized I wasn’t going to accept her justification for her always feeling bad and never feeling good. She looked up at the ceiling and it was almost as if the thick blanket of depression she kept tightly around her slipped off from around her shoulders, and it was finally letting her breathe. She answered: “I laughed. A lot. It was raining that entire weekend and we still got out there and had fun. I remember I felt like I had more energy in my body than usual.” She looked at me. “I sang at the concert. Loud. At the top of my lungs. We had ice cream and all kinds of our favorite junk foods. For once, I didn’t feel sick when I ate. For once I didn’t feel like throwing up after eating. For once, I didn’t care. I got soaked walking in the rain but it just didn’t get to me. It just felt good to be with my sister. And I could tell she was having a good time because she just kept laughing and smiling and talking the whole time. After the concert I slept like a rock. Didn’t wake up once.”
Heavy moments of silence hung in the air before she was able to say: “It almost felt as if there was nothing wrong with me…for that whole weekend.” Finally, those heavy dark clouds lifted and the air felt clean and clear.
I leaned forward and told her: “Guess what? There has never been anything wrong with you ever. It’s called being human. Congratulations Diana, you are a human being. Welcome to the human experience. There is hope that you can have all those little moments of ‘wellness’ in your life, not just sometimes, not just when you are with your sister, not just when you go to concerts—but every single day. I’m here to tell you that it can happen.”
She kept shaking her head no as I kept nodding my head yes. Believe that wellness can be a part of your everyday life. Take action steps to meet it halfway. And it will somehow make its way there—sneaking its way into the nooks and crannies of your daily life.
But Diana simply kept shaking her head no.
That was half a year ago. Diana now is finding newfound strength by reading blogs online on health and wellness. She recently started finding her inner voice through creativity, creating art and writing poetry. She understands that not everyone will understand, empathize, or even show compassion towards her condition but that many people will, and those are the people she has chosen to be around. She states she “hangs on to the hope” that along with educating herself on her condition, her health and wellness, expressing herself through her art, and by letting go of what no longer serves her, she will one day be able to fully function again, contribute to society, help others who are experiencing depression and anxiety, and most importantly: Feel consistently and wonderfully well.
Good luck Diana. Congratulations on taking that first step. Take care.