“What does it feel like?” he asked, while we hiked along Bear’s Den through the pine needles and summer humidity.
Strange. We’d only been friends for about 2 hours and 45 minutes, but I’d already told him some of my darkest secrets. Hesitating while I searched for the right words, I realized he was the first person who had ever asked…
“It feels like coming face to face with your worst fear; hands trembling and heart pounding, trying in vain to take deep breaths, suppressing the feeling of nausea, tears rolling down my cheeks…in my mind, I’m desperately struggling between the fight or flight instinct — even though I know I have no reason to be afraid. There’s nothing I can do to escape the terror of anxiety.”
Even though this conversation took place last summer, the truth is that I’ve been fighting this battle ever since I can remember. But it’s taken almost twenty years to call it by name.
The first time I recognized the unmistakable presence of mental illness, it came in the form of a deep depression. When I was 18 years old, I received the news that my scoliosis had become aggressive and I would need surgery to correct the curvature of my spine. During the two months leading up to the appointed day, I became a complete hermit. Barely able to get out of bed, I stopped taking showers and never left the house unless I was forced to venture out. Beyond the physical symptoms, I experienced the most devastating sorrow of my life.
The idea of “going under the knife” never intimidated me. But I was terrified of how my life would change. My thoughts were dark and consumed with dread — but more significantly, my spirit had broken. After the surgery, I spent a year in what someone described as mourning…it felt like the death of my old self. Only by the grace of God was I able to climb up out of the depths. And even though I sometimes slip back into melancholy, it is my prayer that paralyzing depression will never completely overtake me again.
At the time, this felt like my worst experience with mental illness, but looking back I understand now that it was merely a chapter in the narrative. It’s taken all these years to recognize the symptoms, but in hindsight, I’ve been struggling with anxiety my entire life. I can still remember these childhood meltdowns; sobbing uncontrollably because someone else had folded my laundry or put the sheets on my bed or changed our daily routine — simple gestures that signaled to my brain I had no control over my own surroundings.
If I could go back and hold this tear-filled little girl in my arms, I would tell her that it’s okay to let go and surrender. If I could, I would rock her back and forth until her tears had run dry and I’d try to reassure her that it didn’t always have to be like this. But I can’t go back. Inside I must admit that I’m still fighting, still helpless, and still unable to quiet my anxious spirit.
And when my thoughts completely spiral, my brain turns to the one twisted thing it thinks it has control over. With shaking hands, I reach up and pull out my own eyelashes. This irresistible urge is a body-focused, repetitive behavior (BFRB) called Trichotillomania. For a moment, this painful action releases a chemical in the brain providing a temporary relief from emotional distress — only to be immediately replaced with a deep sense of humiliation and self-hatred.
It began as a coping mechanism when I was about 10 years old; and no matter how hard I try every day to resist, it is likely that Trich will always remain part of my reality. It’s impossible to know exactly how or why it started and it’s even harder to explain why I’m unable to stop. The intricacies of this chronic mental illness are too detailed to cover at length here, but I intend to do my best to explain it further over the coming weeks.
Until today, only my family and a small circle of trustworthy friends have known that hair-pulling is a part of my narrative. Their love and support have given me strength when I thought I had none left. For so many years, I’ve kept my crippling shame hidden behind a thick layer of eyeliner, praying no one would notice something is missing. But now I am finding freedom and forgiveness in breaking the stigma by publicly acknowledging and accepting this broken part of myself.
This past year, I finally began to seek counseling and I’ve been prescribed medication to help my body find balance. It is a slow and steady process, with good days and bad days. There are still mornings when I can’t get out of bed, nights that I can’t recognize the face in the mirror, and moments when I have to remind myself to breathe in and out. Every day I go to bed exhausted by the weight of existence and grateful I can finally rest (assuming my anxiety allows me to sleep through the night).
There’s nothing pretty about mental illness. But there is something beautiful about the grace and empathy I have found because of it. If it wasn’t for these struggles, I wouldn’t be able to recognize the hurt in someone else’s eyes. Because I have known these dark places, I hope that I am able to strike a match that offers a spark of hope. Mental illness has taught me to love the tender mercy of each new sunrise the Lord continues to give us; even when it’s hard to keep going…I know the story isn’t over yet.
When I open my eyes in the morning, I know my soul is spending every day in recovery.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience, either by writing a guest post, or doing an interview with me. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.