"You Look Melancholy and Tense," Said My Therapist (but That's Just My Face).

My History of Mental Illness and Health.

This was a while back. My hair isn't blue and white anymore, but that tight, defensive look on my face apparently is how I always look(?) because I've now had two separate therapists tell me I appear stricken when I'm feeling calm. Cool, cool. Resting stress face, we'll call it. I've been to several therapists over the decades.


My first was when I was sixteen. I think I was sent because I was clearly in trouble- smoking, trying some of the substances offered in the woods on Friday nights, and my grades were plummeting. I was trying to figure out who I was and who I was in relation to everyone else on the planet (read: in my immediate friend group in my medium sized suburban high school). I'd always been a hyper, anxious, perfectionist kind of student- getting stomach aches and staying up all night in middle school to get homework right, but by sixteen I was just sad and mad and my peers thought school was dumb, so I did, too. Also, this was three years after my sister died, after being sick with cancer for seven years, and I'd taken it upon myself to manage everyone else's grief but my own. I was a good little helper and was convinced people in my life were too bruised or busy to shoulder my pain, so I'd determined to be fine and useful. Plus, I'd changed schools just after my sister died and initially really didn't want to be the weird, sad girl in the new school full of shiny, happy people. Eventually, I leaned into it, and found a troop of sad clowns just as miserable and disenfranchised as me. I also found art; theater, writing, movies. In those spaces I could rest and felt the tingling sensations of being alive and being me.


So anyway, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder by this psychologist and put on an SSRI (antidepressant) by my pediatrician.

I went to see the guy for a few months, and it was alright. I don't remember anything earth-shaking. I got the feeling he felt like I was a rich white teenager with no business needing help, which I kind of feared was true. He and I both knew we were wrapping up when I started bringing my then boyfriend with me for...couples therapy? I'm not sure why I brought him, but there he was. We did have the longest relationship of anyone we knew (3 months), so I probably thought it was time to work on us (on my parents' dime). Also it probably seemed dramatic and cool to be going to a psychologist in the late '90s, and I wanted to prove how totally goth I was.


As if the poems weren't enough. At some point I decided that the Paxil I'd been prescribed was dulling my feelings and I took myself off cold turkey, which is highly ill-advised, but I wasn't sharing anything with anyone in authority, so no one could warn me. I remember having to refocus my eyes every time I turned my head for a week or two, so if I wasn't sure that SSRI's are serious meds that effect the brain- I learned then that they are. I was praised for pulling myself out of my funk on my own, for not needing help or relying on meds. In retrospect, it was unwise to come off the meds and maybe I wouldn't have developed my resting stress face if I'd stuck with treatment. I had a condition that continued well past a reasonable window of grief. I graduated high school with a pretty terrible GPA and went to undergrad at the first school that would take me. There, initially I wanted to pursue theater, but was rejected by the program, all while simultaneously witnessing a lot of trauma and sexual assault in my peers, so I took my natural spot in a helper profession, declared social work my major and started volunteering with victims. I poured myself into my academics and had the least amount of fun that anyone has ever had at this beer-soaked school. This is when my anxiety really started shining through, and persisted through getting married (postponed a year for panic attacks) and my early career as a one-woman social work department of a small hospital across the country from where I grew up, and into my intense Master's program for a different helping profession.


The next time I saw a therapist was when I was trying to get and stay pregnant. I wasn't sure what to do with the sense of failure or the grief of having had death inside of me like that, so my husband and I went to a marriage counselor who kind of helped us through it and to whom I later would send a baby announcement with my son's super fat and healthy face on it. After that, I established myself in my career, changed jobs a few times, had another kid, and started a family business, all the while internally trying to tamp down my anxiety and stay clear of my depression. Eventually I started getting individual therapy and my doctor was really nice about it, but her assessment was like, "Ooh, doggie, this is bad. Why haven't you been getting help?" She added Generalized Anxiety to my depression diagnosis and put me back on meds, with the help of my PCP (who awesomely said, "Yeah, it's like you're wearing shit-covered goggles that make everything seem like a shitty version of itself. These pills will help you clean them off.")


And they did.


I saw that therapist off and on for years and learned a lot of self-esteem and how to navigate marriage and parenting.


Recently, after moving again across the country and schooling my kids through a pandemic, trying to start a new career- not in a helping profession, but in art this time (this art- writing, I hope that's obvious?), I started seeing a therapist again. Something about the timing of it, maybe where I am in life or my self-awareness journey or whatever, but this time, I'm actually talking about all my grief and really getting into the things I've lost and the toll it's taken on me. I'm acknowleding the damages of trauma without comparing my suffering to anyone else and denying that I could suffer. I'd always felt that I couldn't possibly have experienced trauma since I was raised by loving parents, I'm wealthy, white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, and functional. All of that might be true, but I'm still carrying a lot and I want to set it down. I don't want to be melancholy and tense all the time any more. I don't want to feel like I owe everyone else but myself. I'm realizing how many layers of protection I've built to cover my hopelessness, fear, and rage, but how they sit in me, poisoning my gut...and how they spike up through the cracks, poisoning my relationships.


I have so, so much work to do, and that's OK. Finally, that's OK. I'm here for it. I'm ready to be vulnerable. Oh! And I've raised my dose of antidepressants and likely will be staying on them for a lifetime. And that's OK, too. This is what it takes to be authentically, and mostly comfortably, me.


If you're on the fence about therapy, go ahead and try it. There's so much more peace and YOU up in there that can come out if you're willing to go hunting for it. Not going to lie, the early and middle parts of therapy suck a lot. It's like emptying out a closet of old stuff you've deliberately shelved...but then you get to decide what you keep and what you get rid of, and how you use that space in the future. I'm realizing I don't have to pretend I don't have pain or that everyone else's pain matters more than mine, but I also don't have to be a museum of my pain. I can process it and thrive beyond it.


I have been using the therapy service BetterHelp and I think you'd benefit from it too. Get 2 free weeks if you sign up using this link: https://www.betterhelp.com/rpc/26714401c3a15483-2-04

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