Interview Four: A Work in Progress

“I was doing everything right, but I guess that’s where anxiety and depression can come in. You’re doing so much, but you don’t think you’re worth anything… nothing’s worth it. You have to put a front on, like an outer shell.”

[Content Warning: Discussion of Suicidal Thoughts]

Reading Time – 7 minutes

From the Beginning

In many ways I had a very blessed life. My parents weren’t abusive… physically, emotionally, or mentally, so… in that aspect, I’m very blessed. I guess a lot of my anxiety stemmed from watching my parents struggle a lot in their own marriage… not knowing if mom kicked dad out… that caused a lot of anxiety.

I witnessed my mother struggle with her husband going to school to become a MD… to see her work full-time and raise two kids… and to see her struggle with her husband who just could not pass his exams in the end. Which… I never knew growing up, but he struggled with his own mental illness. Witnessing all that made me anxious… like, am I not going to have a father anymore? Is she going to kick him out? Are they going to separate? How is my father supposed to provide for his family if he doesn’t pass?

It was a lot to take on as a child, but I think that as children you’re a witness to it, but it doesn’t manifest until later… and for me that was in high school. Surrounded by various people whose parents were doctors or lawyers… and you see what life might have been like… if dad would have passed his medical school exams.

I am the oldest of two kids, so I think I took my mom’s struggles and put them on my own shoulders… so my brother wouldn’t have to worry about it. And I think that was where my anxiety stemmed from… saying, “Mom, you shouldn’t have to be in the struggle alone. Let me help! I don’t know how to help!” I was aware… maybe too aware. Looking back I wonder how did I even get to this point still in one piece? …One piece, or many broken pieces that are still tied together with scotch tape…

The Pressures of Success on Children

The pressures are endless. Grade school… I was always top of my class. What really sent me over the edge was that I was supposed to “crown Mary” as part of the last graduating class of our school. I went to a Catholic school in Indiana for grade school and high school. During the beginning of May, there’s a ceremony to the Virgin Mary where you go and you crown her… to celebrate her life and that God chose her to carry His son. Turns out, it was another kid in my class who got to crown Mary, the first boy ever to do so in our school history. I thought that everything I worked for to crown Mary was ruined! 

I always wanted to be the best. Tried acting… that failed. It was something my parents wanted me to do. Apparently I didn’t have a really loud voice… which is shocking because people who know me nowadays are like, “How did you not excel in this? You don’t know how to be quiet!” Well… I was very shy then. In high school I still had that mentality. I knew when I started high school… I wanted to be a child psychologist. So from that point on, I knew I had to get good grades, get into a good undergraduate university with a good psych program with good research and clinical opportunities… prep for the ACT, SAT, state standardized high school testing… In high school I already knew all of this… which is sucky because how are you supposed to enjoy your life?

It’s so weird… the pressures we put on kids. I had to be in extracurriculars, because colleges love to see kids in extracurriculars. I did sports, stage crew… I became a set director. I was doing everything right, but I guess that’s where anxiety and depression can come in. You’re doing so much, but you don’t think you’re worth anything… nothing’s worth it. You have to put a front on, like an outer shell.

High School, Bullying, and A Suicide Note

High school… I would never repeat it. I hated high school so much… looking back on it. I went to an all girls school… all the cattiness, gossiping. This is for any school, but in an all girls school it was like I’d have friends one day, then the next day they’d talk behind my back… I didn’t find out until years later… in my freshman year planner, someone wrote in there, “You look like a clown. I hope you drown in lava.” I remember seeing it right before I started university and being like, “What the hell is this?” And it triggered everything! I thought, “Oh my God, I had no friends. Who are these people?”

I don’t know what it is about the second year of school that makes me freak out… (quietly) but sophomore year was when I wrote my suicide note… and my brother found it. I remember, I closed my door and wrote it… and my brother came in and was like “Are you okay?” and I was like, “I’m NOT okay! There’s just so much pressure!” I wrote it out of anger and frustration… I really just wanted to quit. For me, writing is very therapeutic. I think getting it all out made me stop to think about it… made me be a bit more rational, that people do love me. It’s so hard when you’re in that position to just take that step back.

My brother is the sunshine of my life… I tell him that all the time. Like, “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles is his song… and I always tell him, “You have no idea how much you mean to me.” From that moment, he was my little saving grace… I have to keep living, because I have this kid to take care of one day… even though he’ll probably end up taking care of me one day, he’s an engineer and he’ll be making the bigger bucks… (laughs)

Catholicism and the First Panic Attack

I’ve always struggled with being a Catholic. I went to Catholic grade school… Catholic high school… did everything by the book, to an extent. I tried to go to the campus church at my university, but it was just very conservative. The church I grew up in was the university church… very liberal and understanding… more social justice oriented, and they cared about the person. There was a different feeling there than any other church I went to… so, in college I stopped going to church. I couldn’t deal with people shoving the Bible in my face. It wasn’t until I got to Pittsburgh… I became more spiritual when I came here. My roommate here was Catholic, and it was just a different way that she brought things up. I still struggle with going to church, but it’s getting better in some ways.

The church did save me when I had my panic attack… When I was a sophomore in college, one day I had a panic attack in the student center… ‘cause that’s great… and I like… got up out of my seat, and I went over to the wellness center… I knew they had psych students there. I ran up and asked the receptionist if anybody was available… she said, “No, there’s no one available now. Are you okay?” I said, “Yes, I’m fine. Just had a panic attack, and I need to talk to someone.” So the wellness center couldn’t see me, and I was like, “I just need a place to breathe!” I walked up and just sat in silence in the empty church… and just prayed. It was probably the first time I was in church since freshman and sophomore year.

Getting to Today

At my current job, I started working there part-time while in grad school. I was just getting ready for the last semester of grad school. I knew I had to worry about sending out my résumé and job applications. But I was thinking, “I have until July!” I remember getting rejections starting in May. In some cases you don’t hear back from jobs for months, which I will never understand… My lease ended in July, and I was still looking for a full-time job then. I was so anxious… like, “Where am I going to live?” I didn’t want to give up this great part-time job I had… I was getting more hours and really starting to love the work.

One of my coworkers… my “Pittsburgh mother” as I call her… decided to take me in, and I lived with her for a long time. And I was still part-timing… trying to find ways to become a full-time staff. Even my mentor was helping… because they saw something in me I didn’t think I had. My anxiety would seep over into the physical. Some nights I couldn’t sleep… I couldn’t eat. I worried about what I was going to do. I told myself if I didn’t find something in Pittsburgh by December I would move back home… but I didn’t want that. When I finally got two offers, I was thinking, “How did it take this long?” We all work so hard in grad school, we do our internships, we have the “experience.” It’s like, “I’m sorry I don’t have three to five years of experience already!”

Final Thoughts

There’s just so many anxieties all at once… it’s like, “How do I manage all of these? Which ones do I tackle first?” One of my favorite mindfulness sayings… “You only can control so much.” You have to just figure out what is in your control. Which is hard, because I want to control everything! (laughs) Another one of my favorites is… “Accepting your emotions and feelings as they come.” I use that line on so many people… (laughs). Even now, years later, I’m still trying to figure out what my triggers are… What varying degrees can be triggers… like just a specific event or maybe something someone says… things I never thought could be a trigger. It’s a work in progress. That really should be the tagline – Mental Awareness: It’s a Work in Progress. (laughs) It’s always a work in progress.

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