Learning to be present
I have lived my life by to-do lists ever since I was a child. Throughout high school, college, my career, and my home life I have meticulously planned out each activity and relish the moment when I can check something off the list and move on to the next. A dwindling to-do list has always been my source of feeling productive, of feeling like I am doing a good job at all of the things people expect of me in order to be accepted and labeled as “strong” or “valuable” or “important” – or maybe just “normal.” As much as I have grown to love my to-do lists and my constant busyness for more than half my life, it has been a crutch for something much bigger that until recently, I struggled to let most of the world in on: I am constantly fighting with my brain and battling a war of depression, anxiety, panic, and OCD.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression for the first time at age fourteen. I went to a private high school where I excelled academically in honors classes. I participated in extra-curricular writing and arts clubs. I did my homework every day right after school. I went out for pizza with my friends and talked on the phone for hours at night. I had posters of my favorite musicians wallpapering my bedroom. On the surface, I was as typical as a teenager can come. But as I said, I had begun the fight with my brain. My brain started to tell me that I wasn’t doing enough, I wasn’t good enough at the things I was doing, and that I wasn’t perfect. My brain would tell me to compulsively hate myself, not accept myself for who I was, and believe that I was isolated even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a young person, this was very difficult to express to anybody – how could my teenage friends understand what I was feeling when all they cared about was shopping, boys, and which movie we were going to see on Friday? How could my parents take me seriously when they would probably just think I was being dramatic and going through puberty? So I didn’t tell anybody for a while. I just self-harmed and took out my confusion and hurt on my body because that’s what felt acceptable and comforting. My brain resisted against going to therapy when my parents finally found out, and resisted coming to terms with any of this for the foreseeable future.
Fast-forward to nineteen years old. My brain had been building up an arsenal of self-hatred in the form of anxious and depressive thoughts for five years. I was in college, I had struggled to figure out what I wanted vs. what I thought was acceptable for a career. I was constantly worrying I wasn’t applying myself enough or doing the best I could. I was college-hopping in hopes of finding a school that somehow spoke to me and let me know I was in the right place. I was also growing more critical of myself physically, and beginning to struggle deeply with self-image. A toxic relationship sent me over the edge, and I had to confide in my doctor that I was feeling out of sorts. It was the first time I was put on medication to deal with my brain and this constant fight. I didn’t really take it seriously. I thought it was just another trivial way to numb myself that was more appropriate than alcohol or smoking. When I found myself in the ER after taking half the bottle in one night, and realizing I had been on the brink of death just an hour prior where my mother found me slumped on my bed, I realized this was a bigger problem that was not going away. I went to rehab, and there I learned that anxiety and depression disorders were real, legitimate health conditions. They weren’t just the result of having “feelings” or being “incapable” of handling what life throws at you. So I did rehab, I went to therapy, and I was put on less addicting medication. This made the next eight years seemingly pleasant. There were bumps in the road, but I learned to reengage myself with activities and projects and lists of things to do and plan. I learned to become an expert at suppressing my feelings and almost having none at all. I learned to hide my problems even better than before. I learned to cover up my issues by excelling into my career, settling with a long-term partner, creating a home with pets and nice décor, hosting dinner parties and going out with friends, visiting family and putting my achievements on display during the rise of social media. Like I said, seemingly pleasant, but not authentically satisfying as I would come to find out.
Twenty-seven really smacked me in the face. I was planning a wedding and before I knew it, I was walking away from my partner. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t want to admit I was part of the problem. I called out the reasons why he made the relationship strained, but I had been suppressing my anxiety and depression for so long, that I pretended they weren’t there, equally as responsible. But when we separated, I sunk into those feelings and they came back stronger than ever. Pretending feelings don’t exist to protect yourself for so many years is like getting hit by an 18-wheeler internally when your body finally caves and accepts them again, good or bad. After a brief relapse into severe depression, I reconnected with my long-term partner and made a conscious effort to go to therapy. I committed to it for the first time in my life, and I was able to successfully go through treatment for eighteen months to repair my relationship. But that wasn’t my only problem. My relationship might have been on the mend, but my brain was still winning the fight – my anxiety and depression, and now panic and OCD, were still running the rest of my life.
Fast-forward to now. I am twenty-eight years old and finally able to say I have come to terms with my mental illness. I realize that I have nothing to be ashamed of, and realize that what I go through is very real, and very common. I no longer feel compelled to pretend I am someone else for the majority of my day, then go home and let the demons out to play in the comfort of my solitude and privacy. I face the demons head-on at all hours through multiple forms of holistic treatment and, most importantly, honesty. Everybody in my life now knows what I go through – I have been writing more publicly to spread awareness not only of my suffering, but also of the grip mental illness has on so many others. I have a stronger relationship built with my partner, and his support and strength amazes me everyday. My family has been opened to the understanding and education needed to support someone with mental illness – and they have been an incredible constant in my journey. I have a workplace that is behind me every step of the way as I handle treatment the right way this time. I have an appropriate care team of professionals that are aiming to guide me towards coping and healing in a way that is empowering and healthy, instead of suppressive and numbing. The only reason this has been made possible is because I have learned to speak up and not be afraid of labels anymore. Not to live a double life. Not to think there is such a thing as “normal.” Not to think that I am incapable or weak. Not to think that mental illness defines me.
As much as all of these positive changes mean to me, there’s one more that really stands out. Those beloved to-do lists of mine still exist. I still make them everyday. I still enjoy planning out projects, activities, and events that excite me and allow my imagination to run into the future at times and perceive it exactly how I want it to be. But the most important thing is that these to-do lists are not a crutch anymore. I don’t live my life by them. I make them as a guide, but not as a rule. I am learning to embrace my feelings, wishes and wants for right now – to live in the present. And if the present doesn’t dictate what’s on the list – so be it. We must all learn to love the present, and be in it fully, even when our brains want us to be elsewhere. Because it’s all we have. Right here and now, I feel free, I feel full, and I feel satisfied with the pace in which my life is moving. I am learning to love myself, and accept myself for what I am right now. And that is enough to know that, after fourteen years, I am finally beginning to win the fight.
Jill Jankowski is a social media marketing professional, writer, and creator. She is an artist at heart with a professional passion for storytelling, and has a way with words she’s always refining to keep up with how the world communicates. Recently, she has taken her passion of writing to help break the stigma of mental illness through her own blog, chaptertwenty7.wordpress.com, and now as a Stigma Fighter. She hopes to take her writing to new heights as she explores new opportunities in holistic healing and therapies in order to help other sufferers.
Jill enjoys spending downtime creatively writing, playing guitar and crafting unique gifts for her aspiring Etsy store. She is also a loving cat mom to two furballs and a Sphynx. Her kryptonite is the initial moment of walking into and smelling the essence of a bookstore.
Jill can be found on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
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