Learning to Cry: Adventures in Anxiety and Depression, Part 2

I would talk to people and they would remark, "You're depressed? But you look so together!" as if they were mutually exclusive. I want everyone to know what I'm going through because I'm not ashamed. I have no reason to be.
01/08/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

I started seeing a psychologist in early November, three weeks after my acute insomnia and anxiety started, three weeks after my long-term boyfriend and I broke up, one week after my family dog died and only days after a string of awful social situations. What's notable here is that, in this span of three tragic weeks, I only cried once: when my dog died. And I remember thinking, as both of my parents sobbed into the phone to tell me, "I should be crying now. This is really sad. Why aren't you crying? Cry. Now." And then I cried bitterly, with two hours of sleep and 16 years of my best friend being covered with cold damp October dirt, just because I thought I had to.

I had gone through a series of awful, depressing things, yet I couldn't feel them. I was aware of them, but I didn't feel them in my bones. But I was anxious. I was anxious about everything. I was anxious about my anxiety. I was anxious about being anxious about being anxious, and so forth. That one day, Oct. 25, is the one day that I cried. Until a month later, where, out of nowhere, I found myself sobbing for no reason. Nothing was ostensibly wrong; I'd been prescribed asylum-strength sleeping pills and was able to lie, undisturbed, in a nightly coma and had been making progress with my therapist. Externally, I was still performing as a functioning human being, but I cried for hours that day, and I'm not sure if I ever really stopped. I fell into a deep depression that lasted about a week and I was more miserable than I ever have been. It was stupefying. From the outside, it looked like I was making progress, taking step after step to conquer my anxiety, but what I didn't realize at the time that this depression was a step forward, not backwards for me.

In a sharply awful but constructive session, my psychologist posed the idea that maybe I was using anxiety as mask for the more natural and appropriate feelings of depression that would follow a series of losses. He asked if I knew why I was shoving anxiety in depression's place, and what the cause of that compulsion could be. Without hesitating, I told him it was because I associated depression with weakness and stagnancy and anxiety with activity; after all, it was anxiety that spurred me to get help from a professional. I didn't want to appear weak or downtrodden, yet I knew that I couldn't go through what I did unscathed, so I forced myself to choose between anxiety and depression and I chose the former. My impulse is to describe this in rhetorical terms as a false dichotomy (which it is) but my therapist, Sela, tells me that I have an unhealthy compulsion to intellectualize my emotions, so I'm not going to. But I just did. Because it makes sense. Oh well.

So here I was, at the bottom of the pit of depression. I sat, slouching in Sela's office on no sleep, the makeup I applied meticulously for my graduation photo smearing down my cheek. I told him I was in a bad place. He listened as I described how I was feeling: hopeless, exhausted, and tired of trying. He looked up from his notepad after a few moments of silence and blinked.

"I don't think this is a bad place," he said.

"But I feel like shit." I raised my eyebrow. I have to continually remind myself that he's the professional, not me.

"I think you're finally allowing yourself to feel the natural response to loss. You're finally letting yourself feel sad. You've taken the armor of anxiety off and you can finally acknowledge how you're feeling."

He was right. I've cried more in the last month than I have this whole year because I'm making up for lost time. Movies make me cry. Books make me cry. Corny Upworthy videos that would have made me scoff a year ago make me cry. And I'm really fucking glad. I'm really happy that I can cry. I'm crying as I write this. Crying is natural. It's something we, as humans, are wired to do. And it feels good. Denying yourself the ability to cry doesn't make you strong. I was hiding from myself when I was forcing myself to not feel emotion because I feared feeling weak, without realizing that I was weakening myself in the process -- and, most importantly, I realized that this should never be a matter of weak/strong. Thinking about it in those terms creates an unhealthy relationship with your emotions.

Obviously I haven't come out of this tunnel yet, but I can almost see light at the end through teary, blurred vision. I've made a number of important discoveries about myself in the last three months, many of which have been some of the most painful things I've ever come across. Another thing I've realized is that there is still stigma associated with even the most basic, pervasive mental afflictions. It's so ingrained in our culture, and even I'm guilty of propagating it by associating depression with weakness. This is why I wrote this. I would talk to people and they would remark, "You're depressed? But you look so together!" as if they were mutually exclusive. I want everyone to know what I'm going through because I'm not ashamed. I have no reason to be. If one person reads this and realizes something about themselves, then I will be happy. Bell can sponsor mental health awareness days with catchy slogans and cute logos, but, in reality, the dialogue starts here.