(CW: self-harm, substance abuse)
I want to begin this with a disclosure: Vulnerability is my archnemesis.
Like, if vulnerability were a person I would fight them on sight. And I would totally win, too. I know for a fact that I would throw that bitch DOWN because I’m a self-certified pro when it comes to fighting emotions that make me feel weak... Quite frankly, for years that’s the only way I knew how to survive. But as fun as it is to brag about my exemplary ability to self-sabotage, it kind of defeats the purpose of this article. The point is, I’ve grown tremendously over the years. So much so, that I hardly recognize the person that I used to be -- I know (or hope) that the people close to me, who witnessed my slow transformation in real-time, would agree.
From an incredibly anxious child, to a severely depressed and cringey teen, to a chaotic mess of a young adult: I’ve been through a lot of different phases and appearances, constantly searching for a version of myself that I didn’t hate. Well, I’d like to believe that I’ve finally found it. And while it would be easy for me to say, “Thank fucking God I don’t know that girl anymore...” I’ve also grown enough to recognize how unfair to myself that would be. As much as reflecting on my past selves makes me want to cringe so hard that I throw up and die, the reality is… That girl was hurting. She needed help, and she didn’t have the tools or the resources to help herself at the time. Sure, she was also a huge bitch… But, don’t bitches deserve forgiveness, too? And now that I DO have the tools to help myself, I suppose the true test of growth is to confront vulnerability head-on, like the mature and healed little bitch that I am. I can only hope that my experience could help someone else. So, here it goes.
My mental health journey has been a long and treacherous one; maybe more treacherous than a lot of people know (re: fuck vulnerability). The pandemic has left me with a lot of time alone with my thoughts, which has been healing yet emotionally draining. Something I find myself reflecting on most, and definitely the main source of my fear about sharing my story, is that I cannot control how other people perceive me. The potential judgment of my peers weighs on me more than anything else. This insecurity is only amplified by social media, which has allowed me to carefully curate the version of myself that I want people to see at any given time. Alas, I’ve come to realize that I owe it to myself and those who love me to see the full picture. Whether people judge me or not is, as it turns out, more of a reflection of them than it is of me.
Growing up, forming close connections with people was never my strong suit. It was simply easier to keep everyone at a distance, for fear of them seeing how vulnerable I really was. When I did have friends, keeping them around was always twice the battle. Worse yet, I formed a bad habit of blaming other people for this. For so long, I wanted so hard to believe that everyone around me was the problem. Spoiler alert: Most of them weren’t. My stubborn little head was just so far up my stubborn little ass that I was subconsciously sabotaging every aspect of my life. My relationships with others were suffering due to my unhealthy relationship with myself. It’s been far from easy, but in the past few years I’ve worked hard to correct my toxic thought patterns and behaviors, and I’ve managed to build an incredible support system that I truly never thought that I could have. Against all odds, I am still alive and have yet to murder anyone. I can’t take full credit though.
Amidst going off to college and moving out of my hometown for good, my mental health quickly declined further than ever before. I completely cut off every person who knew the “old Emma,” genuinely believing that that was what I needed in order to fully break free from the version of myself that I hated so much. Another spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Instead, I dug myself even deeper into a hole of isolation. The old Emma was gone, and yet I still didn’t have the tools to become the person that I so desperately wanted (and needed) to be. I was lost. Consequently, this led to a lot of unhealthy behavior that I’m not proud of. From substance abuse to physical self-harm, I was spiraling fast. The panic attacks were relentless and debilitating. Eating and sleeping became impossible, between swings of delusional mania that allowed me to convince myself that I was thriving rather than deteriorating. It got to a point where I couldn’t hide it anymore: People were starting to notice. My vulnerability was spilling out of the cracks in the wall that I had spent so long building around myself, and thanks to no one but myself, I felt as though I had no one to turn to for help. Finally, I was forced to take responsibility for my life before it was gone. Exhausted and out of options... I admitted myself into the hospital as a danger to myself.
My time as an in-patient is a blur. In fact, most of that time in my life is a blur, which may honestly be for the best. I could easily go on and on about the tremendous flaws in the American mental healthcare system, but let’s just say… That shit sucked. I’d never felt so raw, alone, and… Yes, there it is again. Vulnerable. All of the pain that I had harbored became very real, very fast, and I quite literally had nowhere to run from it. But it was also extremely eye-opening and validating. For the first time, feeling alone was miserable rather than falsely comforting. All I wanted was to be home with my family again, making art, doing all of the things that made me feel whole. For the first time, I didn’t just want to “feel” better by any means necessary - I wanted and needed to BE better. Finding therapists and medications that worked for me was hell, and is still an ongoing battle. But it’s been undoubtedly beneficial if not entirely necessary, and it was only the first step towards a healthier and happier future. I know that this article should probably be titled, “It’s Easier Said Than Done.” And of course, I realize the privilege that I have, having been able to receive the professional help that I was given. But at the end of the day, the most valuable lesson I learned through all of this, was that the only person who could truly save me was… Me. And I continue to choose to save myself every day. So, here are a few bits of wisdom that have helped me the most:
Growth is not linear, and it never stops. One of the biggest lies I always told myself, was that who I was at my worst was simply… “Who I was.” Any time I hurt myself or other people, I told myself that I was simply just a shitty, terrible person who was incapable of change. Of course, I still have plenty of bad days and continue to make mistakes. But I also know first hand that I’m entirely capable of mending those mistakes and doing better next time. I am responsible for how I react to situations and to people. Sometimes that means swallowing my pride and apologizing. Sometimes it means forgiving those who hurt me, even myself. Sometimes it means just walking away, going to bed, and taking the time to assess why I reacted the way that I did. Allow yourself to learn and move on.
My perspective is never the only perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in my own emotions. But as much as I may want to believe it sometimes, I am not the main character in other people’s lives. Literally everyone is battling their own demons, and growing at their own rate. More often than not, other people’s reactions and behaviors are due to things entirely not about me. I’ve stopped taking situations personally, and instead, pause to consider all aspects of other points of view. This has alleviated a tremendous amount of my anxiety and taught me the immense value of empathy and compassion.
I am far more capable than I sometimes want to believe. It’s far easier and less scary to stay trapped in old behaviors and comfort zones. However, I’ve now achieved countless things that once felt impossible. My angsty, anxious teen self would absolutely not believe me if I told her that by 23 I’d have traveled to foreign countries alone. Or graduated college. Or gotten over that ex-boyfriend. Or admitted myself into a mental hospital, and then wrote about it for all to read. And it feels fucking amazing.
To say the least, the years between then and now have been the most transformative. Through this journey, I gained a valuable new perspective (many of them, actually). I’ve grown to accept the love and the help that I deserve, and repair the relationships with those who I pushed away for so long. I can honestly say that I love the person that I have become, and continue to grow to be. And just as important -- I forgive the person who I used to be. I couldn’t have done it without her.