My depression and anxiety manifested because of unresolved mental-health issues. I lived with depression and anxiety for so long that I didn’t know it was a medical problem. It was simply how I always was; it was all I ever knew.
Because I was born highly sensitive (a deep sense of feeling emotions and highly attuned to stimuli), the emotional abuse and resultant traumas I experienced in my household growing up changed my wiring, my chemistry. I adapted for survival and never dealt with the hurt and painful feelings I experienced as a child and young adult. I had no idea this would come back to haunt me later in life, but why would I? When you’re in survival mode, that’s what takes priority in your life—surviving.
When I look back at my childhood, I see so many early signs that I was in trouble and particularly vulnerable to being unwell. My body tended to react to mental distress with physical illness in one form or another. My first panic attack happened around third grade. To this day, I remember lying in bed at night, thinking about death and what happens when you die. As I lay there thinking that I would never exist again for billions of years, the thought overwhelmed me, and I bolted upright in my bed, gasping for breath. The dreadful
fear was unbearable, yet I could not turn to my parents; they never talked about these kinds of important issues. I could not depend on them for comfort.
My father was intimidating and prone to outbursts of rage, so as a little girl, I realized quickly that it was best to keep quiet and remain invisible in the household rather than do anything to trigger his fury. I now believe he probably suffered from an undiagnosed chemical imbalance, as there were periods of time when he was nice and even happy. It became natural for me to sense his energy, but even when I thought it was a safe day, I was always on high alert to avoid unleashing one of his terrifying explosions. My mother, brother, and I lived with a constant dread. “Every man for himself” quickly became normal in our household. Imagine how difficult it was for an already sensitive girl to not even be able to go to her own mother for the protection and support she needed. With every incident, I shut down more and more. With every incident, I developed more survival skills. Now, when I look back at myself as a young girl, I weep for that child. At the time, I had no choice but to carry on knowing that someday, I would leave that house and my life would be mine to live.
I spent a lot of time in my bedroom alone, with the door locked, and I even went so far as to make a special safe place in the closet by hanging pictures and bringing in a lamp and pillows. When my father went into one of his rampages, I retreated into my closet and held my hands over my ears, crying and rocking back and forth to comfort myself.
Sadly, my father never told me he loved me until I was an adult, and that was after I initiated the conversation. As a child, I believe the only time I felt any feelings of warmth from him was when I was sick, as I knew he would not yell at me then. My mother told me that when I was a toddler, I always wanted to put on a dress before Daddy came home from work—I was already trying to win his approval. Nothing was ever good enough for him, though; he was always lecturing me on how to behave in public, how to behave at friends’ houses, how to talk to adults, how the house should look, how I should look. Sometime in high school, I think he gave up on me, deciding I would never amount to anything; he called me a “flunky,” although I had never actually flunked anything. These incidents happened with every report card or test result. I never lived up to his perfect expectations of who I should be. I knew that even if I received straight As, it would not be good enough; there would always be something to point out that I was doing wrong.
Other drama that manifested as trauma to me happened in my life outside of my father’s verbally and emotionally abusive actions. I can recall specific times in my life when major shifts had a huge impact on me. The last day of elementary school was one of those days. It happened to be my birthday, and the entire school was sitting outside, receiving our sendoff from the principal. Even as a sixth grader, I experienced the deep insight that my life wouldn’t be the same again. A place I had known and enjoyed for seven years would disappear from my life: a place where I had excelled in school and was popular, where a lot of other kids liked me. I’m not sure if I was having a psychic moment of foresight or not, but it was incredibly real for me, this knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
Indeed it wasn’t, for on the first day of junior high school, I experienced tremendous fear and isolation. Being forced into a very large school with older kids scared me. I was a small, shy, and naïve girl thrust into a school with kids from the opposite side of the tracks that I had very little in common with. The junior high was so big that I rarely had friends I knew in class, even those I had been friends with in elementary school. The kids were funneled into this big school from all around town, which meant some came from crime-ridden neighborhoods. It wasn’t long before a fight broke out in the
hallway, and I would have leapt out of my body in that moment if I could have. School had always been safe for me compared to what I was experiencing at home. Elementary school had been a haven. Now I was on high alert at the place where I was supposed to receive my education. And like I had when I felt insecure at home, I learned to keep my head down and mind my own business, which made it difficult for me to build a support system of peers. If I saw some rough kids, I walked the other way; and when fighting broke out, I made a mad dash for my classroom.
It was during this time that I became aware of changes that didn’t agree with me: bigger schools, bigger hallways, bigger classes, more noise, and harsh lighting. Nobody knew in those days how acute and
overwhelming outside stimulation can be to a highly sensitive person—and even if they had, I’m sure nothing would have been done or explained to me. Due to the large size of the school, the teachers didn’t take notice of me. Bigger problems, like dealing with the delinquent kids, took priority. I dug deeper into survival mode, trying to get through each day until I could hide in my bed and make it all go away.
When it was time to go to high school for ninth grade, my parents decided to send me to a private Catholic school even though we weren’t Catholic. This upheaval—both the transition to high school and the
shift to a stricter, more demanding teaching style within a rigorous religion I didn’t practice—brought additional unsettling changes. Plus, there was the added wrench of teenagers going through puberty and surging hormones. Not me—I was a late bloomer and the boys made sure to let me know.
Because it was a private school, there was no fighting in the halls, and this was a tremendous relief to me. By this point, however, my anxiety and extreme shyness were in full swing. I didn’t know very many kids at this school—just a handful out of a class of 365 kids.
Most people either love high school or hate it, and I was of the latter group. As I progressed through the grades and my own hormones kicked in, suicidal thoughts started coming more frequently. I turned
to experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and boys to silence those thoughts, hide my suffering, and find what I thought was love. Engaging in these activities made me feel powerful and in control—feelings nobody could take away from me.
It was during this time of my life that I experienced another blow to my feelings of safety: events that would forever shape me as a person and have one of the biggest impacts on my life. When I was fifteen years old, I was having a typical night at home—my father yelling at somebody and me wanting to escape—and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, but I needed to get out or go crazy. So I ran out of my house.
I walked about a mile as the sun was beginning to set, realizing I should head home—no good would come from being out in the dark alone. A man was walking toward me, and it gave me a weird feeling—something was not right. My survival and intuitive instincts were fully engaged. I crossed the road so I wouldn’t have to meet him. I was walking quickly away, but I turned around and saw that he was now following me. Oh God, what am I going to do? What is going to happen to me? Before I could think about what to do next, he came up from behind and grabbed me with both of his hands around my waist. He began to throw me toward a ditch and some bushes.
What happened next was a bit of a blur, as about a million thoughts occurred in a few seconds. Have you ever had a dream where the boogieman is going to get you and you try to scream but nothing comes out? I couldn’t let that happen! I opened my mouth and made a sound I didn’t know was possible. The sound of survival came from the very depth of my being—a primal, raw scream so loud it shocked me. I screamed my survival scream until he let go and ran off with the comment, “Scared you!”
By now it was fairly dark, and I was a kid alone who had just been attacked. The survivor in me knew to walk two blocks more to a pay phone and call home. My brother came and picked me up, and I didn’t talk about it again until now. Because I was afraid of getting into trouble, I didn’t tell my parents. It was my fault I was out at night alone, walking far from home—my mistake. No, it was best to stuff down that experience and all the accompanying emotions—terror, shock, panic—and just try to get through another day as I had done with other traumatizing experiences. Sadly, I thought this was what life was like: the world was a cruel and unsafe place.
While the chances of this happening to somebody are pretty rare, the chance that it could happen twice seems almost impossible. But it did happen to me again, and this time in broad daylight. About a year later I was walking during summer break to my boyfriend’s house a mile away. I was about three blocks from his house when a car pulled over to the wrong side of the road. The driver got out and grabbed me by the waist, attempting to pull and push me into his car. Even though this was before I learned that you should never let an attacker get you to another location, all at once I thought to myself, Are you
f**king kidding me?! You are NOT getting me into your car! And just like that, there it was again—another attack and another scream. Certainly somebody would come out of their house and rescue me. Certainly somebody would drive by and see this guy trying to grab me. Nobody came. I felt like this was the story of my life: I couldn’t rely on anybody to help me. I always had to do it myself— always alone.
I screamed my survivor scream, and he let go of me and drove off. There was no time to be still and wonder what to do—he could come back. I ran to the nearest house and pounded on the door. Nobody answered. I decided to make a run for it to my boyfriend’s house. A block away, a car with a young couple in it pulled over and said they had seen me leaving their parents’ house (the door I had knocked on), and wondered what I wanted. I told them what happened to me and they drove me to safety.
I wonder a lot about what would have happened to me in both of those scenarios if I hadn’t fought back. For now I can only call it attempted abduction. I don’t know if it would have meant rape, enslavement, being trafficked, or death. I do know that a little part of me died with each of those attacks. A little part of me believed these kinds of traumatic events were par for the course
in my life. The world wasn’t safe, people weren’t safe, and I only had myself. I was officially the loneliest person on the planet.
At this point, anxiety, fear, and panic ruled my life even though I was still a teenager. I remember once when I went to the doctor and told her I was having trouble breathing. She looked at my suntan and indicated that I must have had too much sun. Unfortunately, she didn’t pick up on the fact that I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. There were many more breakdowns in communication with doctors in the coming years, being misdiagnosed and misunderstood. I was having more and more suicidal thoughts but kept them under wraps because I didn’t need anybody thinking I was weirder
than they already did. All of my friends seemed to be happy and enjoying life, so I kept my dark secret in a desperate hope to fit in.
When I was a junior in high school I started selfmedicating, drinking on the weekends, smoking, and taking drugs, mostly pills at that time. For some reason, I took uppers, which was the last thing my already anxious body needed. I really didn’t care if I lived or died and often put myself in dangerous situations: partying with people I didn’t know or trust, being in cars with boys who drove carelessly, walking around drunk at night, being present at drug deals, and other thoughtless activities. Slowly the dimmer switch was gradually being turned lower; I felt that soon my light would be completely out.
My life was gray, all color removed. All meaning was gone, and the only task I focused on was escape. All I cared about was getting through each day until I would turn eighteen and could move out of the house. As young adults often do, I assumed that moving out of the house would cure all of my woes, and I would be endlessly happy because I had escaped the wrath of my family. But that endless happiness continued to elude me even while in my own apartment. Yes, I felt an initial sense of freedom and happiness to be on my own, but that soon faded, as I still faced my personal struggles. I didn’t know who I was as a person, and I stayed in survival mode because that was all I knew. My unhealthy behaviors continued. Instead of going to school and being miserable, I had a job and was miserable.
In my early twenties, I progressed from alcohol and pills to cocaine and got involved in abusive relationships with men, because again, that was all I knew. I was a mess, but because I was an expert survivor, I always got up the next day and somehow managed to keep up my charade. I didn’t know I was living a lie. I didn’t know how much I was suffering inside from the traumas, anxieties, fears, and drugs. From the outside I appeared to be fine, even having a great time, until my lies and self-abuse eventually caught up with me, manifesting emotional and physical illnesses.
I didn’t know at the time that I was getting a big wake-up call. I wish I had, but I didn’t. It seems to me everyone gets their wake-up call one way or another—a car crash, the death of a loved one, the loss of a home or a job, or, in my case, a devastating illness.
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