Hiding has always come easily to me, even from myself. I spent my first thirty years hiding from the reality that I needed help. When I thought about it, I thought I was being strong. It wasn’t until I faced my demons that I found out what real strength was.
My name is Jen. I was born, an only child in a middle-class family with older parents. My maternal grandmother lived with us, and suffered from dementia and anxiety. I watched her struggle. I watched my parents’ reactions. They loved her, but my father thought that she should be “stronger.” Fight her inner demons so they didn’t control her. I internalized it, so when I started to discover my own demons, I hid them.
In my sophomore year of high school, I lost two important things: my paternal grandmother and my boyfriend. The boyfriend was a good thing as he was borderline abusive. But the loss of my grandmother was a cutting blow. Losing them created fissures in my carefully molded mask, letting my depression seep out. I didn’t reach out. I suffered silently. It was around this time that I made a half-hearted attempt at suicide.
I say half-hearted because, looking back, I didn’t really want to die. I cut my wrists, but I didn’t cut deep. I cut enough that I had to hide my arms from prying eyes. I cut enough that I was mortified by what I’d done. That was the first of many times I cut to alleviate the pain. I scared the hell out of myself, but I didn’t feel like I could talk about it to anyone. What would I even say?
I hid. I tucked it away into this thorny patch inside myself where I’d been burying my feelings for years. It seemed like a safe, logical thing to do. When the feelings I didn’t understand were buried, I didn’t have to deal with them. I could appear “normal.” I was fooling myself, but I was none-the-wiser at the time.
Time went on. I danced through increasingly bad relationships, losing more of myself through each and every one. Somewhere in the middle of college, I decided to put a stop to it. I didn’t date for two years. I congratulated myself on finally “dealing” with my issues. Truthfully, I didn’t deal with anything; I just didn’t absorb anyone else’s crap.
I met my husband in my last year of college. We dated for a couple of years and married soon after we graduated. Within a year, we had our first child.
After my daughter’s birth, I suffered with a year-long bout of post-partum depression that scared us badly. We didn’t call it that, of course. No. That would be naming the monster and I couldn’t do that. I didn’t seek help either.
Somehow, we survived that year and things seemed to get better. Our second child was born three years after our first and I didn’t have any post-partum symptoms. Huzzah! I was normal!
Except … I wasn’t. The thin mask I’d worn all my life was beginning to slip. I was having a hard time getting up some days. Now that I was home with the kids, I found myself isolated more and more. Which I liked, even though I was lonely most of the time.
About the time that my son was three, my depression and anxiety had spiraled out of control. Unsure how to handle all of these new, surfacing emotions, I went to therapy. I found possibly the worst therapist for me, someone who sat with a clipboard and judged as I sat there pretending to be defiant. It didn’t go well and I left soon after.
My kids and I started taking karate about four months later. The kids loved it, but I thrived. The exercise was great and I met some incredible people who changed my outlook on life. For the first time, I was able to be myself and be accepted. Amid that climate of acceptance, I found a good therapist. I even talked to my parents and found that they whole-heartedly supported my journey toward mental stability. I finally got on some meds that helped control my depression and anxiety. I was on my way to a healthy mind for the first time in thirty-some years.
It’s been two years since I decided to get real help. Two years of slowly coming to terms with the knowledge that I can’t bury the bad stuff. I was still mostly silent about the struggle, however. So much stigma, so many assumptions. I told myself that I kept the mask to protect my friends, but really … I was protecting myself.
About six months ago, something happened that changed my view on keeping silent forever. Robin Williams tragically lost his fight with bipolar disorder. I looked around my Facebook feed just after his death and was greeted with stereotype after stereotype about mental illness. For the first time in my life, I was mad as hell. Where was the empathy he deserved? A man, whose private world had been colored with so much sadness, had filled everyone else’s world with joy and laughter. And yet, so many jumped to condemn him.
I couldn’t hide anymore.
It started with a frank post about how mental illness can kill as silently as a cancer, but it grew from there. I had so much more to say. Now that I’d let my mask slip, I refused to turn back. I wrote my first blog post two days later and I’ve been writing my truth ever since.
I might never be able to live life without therapy and good cocktail of anti-depressants, but that’s OK. I’m owning my truth. It hasn’t always been easy to look people in the eye knowing that they know my secret struggle. But it is part of who I am. It has shaped the person I’ve become.
And I quite like that person after all.
Jen DeSantis is a freelance writer from the suburbs of Philly. She specializes in horror and sci-fi fiction, but dabbles in other genres as well. She is a black belt in Kenpo karate and enjoys kicking the crap out of bags when writer’s block hits. When not writing or kicking, she is a full-time wife and mom of two. She recently started a mental health blog called Serotonin Junkie. There, she talks frankly about her struggles with depression and anxiety and hopes to create a safe place for others to share their stories. She can be found at www.jendesantis.com, @serotoninjunkie on twitter, and on her facebook page Serotonin Junkie,https://www.facebook.com/