I went out with my host family to a goodbye party for their friend’s daughter, and it was the worst time I have spent in Denmark so far…
I put off writing this post for a few days as to allow it to fall during invisible illness week. Our society is prone to ignore illnesses that you cannot see. If there is not visible,physical proof, your issues are not real. Most chronic invisible conditions “are not always obvious to an observer, but can sometimes or often limit daily activities. These disabling symptoms can range from mild challenges to severe limitations and vary from person to person. Having an invisible illness can prohibit the sufferer from enjoying life in the way they once knew.” In light of Invisible Illness Awareness Week, I want to share a story with you all. A window into my world.
I am living with severe depression and anxiety. I think that the last time I can truly remember not suffering from these illnesses was in kindergarten. 15 years ago. The person most of you have gotten to know is a reflection of the false self I put forward all those years ago. Even at this moment when I am trying to type out these thoughts, my mind is fighting me. Thoughts are racing: telling myself not to write the words that will expose me, telling myself that people will look at me differently when they know the truth, telling myself that I am going to hurt the ones I love if they know that I was suffering for 15 years and they didn’t know to help me. My body feels like it is shutting down, locking in place. Maybe this is a cause of my back pain… It feels as if someone is holding my spine in their tight meaty hands squeezing tighter and tighter until it feels that I could snap.
Some of this tale is not my story to share, so for a lack of available words, my home was a danger zone growing up. I managed to feel safe and unsafe at the same time. Like I was in a building where the ceiling was caving in, but I had on a hard hat so I had to be fine. But one of the hardest parts of invisible illnesses is that your hard hat can only protect what others see. I was being attacked internally.
I grew up faster than you could ever imagine. I don’t remember being a child. I don’t remember being care-free. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t overthink every single interaction I considered making, thinking of every possible way it could go wrong before deciding it wasn’t worth the trouble. I don’t remember a time when I have felt comfortable sharing how I was feeling. I don’t remember the last time I willingly hugged my sister. I remember internalizing everything so no one would have to worry about me. I remember the fear of speaking; it was as if one wrong word would tear apart my duct-taped life. It was as if one wrong word would result in me losing my family. Of child protective services splitting us up. At least that is what 6-year-old Emily thought and while this may seem like an over-exaggeration caused by a young mind, but it was a real issue. I could feel it looming over me. Haunting me.
By second grade, I had already promised myself that I would internalize every single thing that was wrong with me until the day I turned 18. You learn the rules pretty quickly when you’re used to walking on eggshells. As a minor, my thoughts were too dangerous to be uttered aloud. I was protecting my mom, I was protecting my sister, I was not going to be the reason we were split apart. I knew if I held off until I was legally an adult. Nothing could come back on my family. I threw myself into my studies. Nothing else mattered to me but walking the line of perfection. Perfection to a struggling 6-year-old came in the form of complete dedication to school. I would never get below an A.
A lifestyle that pushed me to graduate as valedictorian. That pushed me to never take an art class as it was a risk to my GPA. A lifestyle that pushed me to hack into my graduating classes grades to verify that I was the one with the highest GPA. The lifestyle that had me take the ACT four times. The lifestyle that had me crying as each college rejection leter rolled in. I would never get in trouble, not even for forgetting one assignment. My family has a history of migraines and I would pretend to throw up in the bathroom in elementary school if I ever forgot a book or an assignment so that I could go home. I would not make too many friends because friends were a dangerous distraction. Isolated. I was to be an independent person. Lonely. I was to be mature. I was to be perfect.
As I mentioned this is 15 years of depression and anxiety, so my life’s story will not fully be in this post–you’re welcome. Basically, I didn’t make it to my goal of 18 years before breaking. I was about 17 and in a high school psychology class. We were in the mental health unit. We had finished quizzes on various mental illnesses including, you guessed it: DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY. We were receiving our results one particular day, but before we did we had a circle to talk about personal issues. We told enough stories that most of us were in tears and I couldn’t keep myself together… I told them the story that I mentioned way earlier that wasn’t fully mine to tell. I told them how I grew up in fear of going home and being the one to find my sister dead. That when I returned home first, I would check the house so no one else had to be the one to find her. I never had this nightmare come true. Wow more reflection this probably why I never invite people to my house.
One of my closest friends has been to my house twice in eight years–the first time being when I left for college. Basically my psych teacher said I should/needed to go talk to the school’s social worker, which AS MENTIONED I have a slight fear of. I gave her the shortest recap of what happened in my life. The social worker said I had to tell my mom, or she would. In the end it was her. I still remember that night when my mom drove me to a work meeting. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want her to know that I wasn’t okay. That I couldn’t handle it myself. That I was fucked up. I went to hop out of the car and she said “I can’t believe you wouldn’t tell me, Em. I thought we had a relationship where you could talk to me…” It broke my heart.
I ended up trying therapy, but it wasn’t the time. I was still under 18 and I refused to be as open as I needed to for it to make any difference. I went to two or three different therapist in less than a year. I had my mom keep these a secret from my family. I didn’t want any of them to know. I felt shame. My sister was so angry that we wouldn’t tell her.
I guess you know now. As much as my mom wanted me to explain to her, I couldn’t. I didn’t even want my mom to know. No one else could get a glimpse into the broken person I was. I still needed to be perfect. I knew that therapy wasn’t working and I couldn’t let my mom waste money on something that so stupid as my mental health Thanks society, for making me feel that I am less than. Your stigma surrounding mental health is shit. You had even me believing that if it wasn’t visible it wasn’t there, it wasn’t real. I suddenly just stopped making appointments.
I allowed myself to continue suffering until a little over a year ago. I finally broke down and told my mom I was struggling and needed medication. A little after that I was talked into going to therapy again (this time at my school for free, aka paying my whole tuition anyways might as well take advantage of the health center, thanks Whitman). I have switched medication 3 times, tried mindfullness, done weekly therapy sessions, carry around a stone, write out my feelings, talk to the people around me, embrace my struggles. Embrace my fears and anxieties. Embrace those around me. Embrace help. And I’m not okay, but I’m okay. I’m a contradiction that lives and breathes and feels pain and occasionally still struggles to put herself first and has days when she cannot leave her bed and weeks where the thought of picking up her room is the hardest thing and has moments when she doesn’t want to live in this world and times when everything feels right. And I am better even with these struggles. It’s the hyggeligt moments that keep me going. But a chronic illness doesn’t disappear just because you will it so or are trying your hardest to fight it off.
I went out with my host family to a goodbye party for their friend’s daughter, and it was the worst time I have spent in Denmark so far… I didn’t take care of myself as to not cause a scene. I wanted to be polite and happy for this giant group of Danes. I have been in a downswing this week and I pushed myself anyways. I am used to having three or four Danes speaking Danish around me while I sit in silence. It’s a part of the home-stay life and I wouldn’t change it; it pushes me to work harder on the language. But imagine having social anxiety and being in a place that you were only invited to because you live with the people that were actually invited. Now imagine that there are 30 people around you talking in another language as you try to blend in and ignore the feeling of loneliness and isolation. You crave for someone, anyone to speak to you in English, but are too anxious to keep the conversation going because you assume no one wants you there and they all hate you. Now imagine all of this on top of not being a tall, blonde, thin girl in a sea of Danes. Isolated for your language and now your bright blue-green hair, and sweat pants, and less than athletic build. I. Could. Not. Breathe. I was told to go play trivia pursuit with the other people my age aka gorgeous Danes. But they are all SPEAKING IN DANISH. And I saw as much and the mom is like they can speak in English for it. Like NO THANK YOU I would rather suffer in silence than interrupt their game AND ask them to speak in English. She kept pushing and pushing me. I just couldn’t. I was stuck there on the verge of a panic attack for 6 hours. This is invisible illness. This is me suffering for hours as to not be an inconvenience to others. This is what we are hiding. Just because you cannot see our struggles as easily does not mean that they are not there.