In 2012 I was introduced to Brene Brown's TED talk about vulnerability and shame. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm as obsessed with her research as anyone ever could be; a true "Brownie", if you will. With all of the conversations I've had about vulnerability over the last four years, I really started to see myself as a "vulnerability virtuoso". In my mind, I thought I had nailed vulnerability on the head.
Today I discovered an identical loathing towards vulnerability, which is as equally strong (if not stronger) as the passion I have for it. I have never hated something so much. Vulnerability feels like freedom and courage, but it also feels like someone kicking you in the stomach and knocking all of the air out of your lungs. Over and over again.
I can be vulnerable about the fact that I usually turn my alarm off at least four times before I actually get up, or that after training for five months I still want to die when I run just one mile. I can admit that my shopping habits keep Target in business, and that I listen to Ingrid Michaelson for at least three hours every day. But there are two vulnerable topics for me that I have avoided like the black plague.
Depression and Anxiety.
I probably erased those words at least 10 times just while typing this. They have such a negative connotation, such a stigma in our society. I have many fears that this entry will be taken as weakness, a cry for compliments, a lack of gratitude, or even a naive perspective into the world of mental illness.
Let it be known that I am writing this blog post with only 2 motives:
1-to let anyone who struggles with any weakness to know they are not alone
2-to educate the general public, as an attempt to dilute the stigma around mental illness.
The reality of depression is becoming more and more accepted in our society. I am certainly pleased with the efforts of so many people that have been made to raise awareness about this topic. I am not attempting to make an educated statement about mental illness, or to say what depression and anxiety feel like for every person. But I am attempting to let the world in on the hidden and often shamed life of someone with depression.
Even with all of the talk of depression, we are still so far from accepting it for what it is. In the seven years that I have struggled with depression, I have had people tell me that it's all in my head, that if I was more grateful I wouldn't struggle, that I am less attractive because of my depression, that I am in control of my thoughts and so I should be able to use positive self-talk to get out of it, that going to therapy is weak, and that I just don't understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Considering how private I am about my depression and anxiety, these are comments that have not been made by strangers, but by some of my closest friends.
To most of those that I have opened up to about my struggles with anxiety and depression, my confession has come as a complete surprise. They see me as a upbeat, cheerful, and outgoing person. And that's the thing: I am.
I am not my depression. I am not my anxiety.
Depression and anxiety can target the least expected. Even I, having studied psychology, am terrible at picking someone with depression or anxiety out of a crowd. When we think of depression, we think of the introverted, frowning girl who has too low of self-esteem to carry on a conversation with someone. We think of anxiety as the person who is nervously fiddling with something in their hands, who leaves immediately after church is over to avoid socializing, or who obsessively writes out to-do lists throughout any given day, Let me tell you, these are not the only faces of depression and anxiety.
I can’t really tell you what depression is, I can only tell you what it feels like. Depression can feel like a never-ending pit that you’ve somehow fallen into. It can feel like you are the only person in the world who feels lonely or sad. It feels like the whole world seems to “get it” and there is something that you just don’t quite understand. It feels like there are thoughts inside your head growing bigger and bigger, until there isn’t room inside of your body for them anymore. It feels like no matter hard you try, the purpose of your life is to be weak. It feels like the sharpest pain in your heart, or it can seem like you can’t feel anything at all. It feels like no matter how much you sleep, you will never feel rested again. You're tired all day, but when you try to sleep the thoughts start racing in your mind. You plan out all of your goals and expectations for the next day, but then each night you feel like you've only let everyone down. It feels like wanting to eat everything you see, and other times it feels like you couldn’t endure ever eating again. The anxiety fuels the depression and the depression fuels the anxiety. You worry that other people might see you as being a downer, so you try to make sure others see you as being outgoing and optimistic. You don’t want people to know, because you don’t want people to think that you’re weak, looking for attention and sympathy, or just too lazy to try harder. You try to make it seem normal, but the fear of others seeing you for who you are starts to make your heart race. At times, the anxiety takes over your body with no warning sign at all. It comes without rhyme or reason, and even when your thoughts are calm, your heart is racing and your palms are sweating. It feels like you have to escape or hide, because it's not normal to feel like this. And even when the kindest, most loving people are trying to help, you can’t help but feel embarrassed and ashamed that you are so weak. You know, logically and rationally, that you are so loved and that people are pleased with who you are; but every time you try to convince yourself that this is really true, you can't help but wonder if it's all just there to make you feel better
Just like how you are not your messy car, your bad habit of interrupting people, or your diet of mostly Chick-fil-a and diet soda, I am not my depression or anxiety. I am a person with goals and dreams. I am a person with strengths and weaknesses. I am a person with real feelings and real thoughts. Does my depression give me a skewed perspective of reality? Does it cause me to wear my emotions on my sleeve? Does it make me a more needy friend? Maybe. But just because my depression and anxiety are part of who I am, they are not my identity. Yes, depression and anxiety are a struggle for me literally every day. I cannot deny the influence they play in my life. This influence, however, is not something that can simply be characterized as a weakness. My depression and anxiety allow me to empathize with people in all stages of life. They help me to perceive other people's emotions and to be more considerate of those around me. They help me to be aware of my weaknesses and motivate me to be a better person. They facilitate connection and compassion. I am not my depression. I am not my anxiety. I am a person who is trying to make these weaknesses I've been given into strengths.
Vulnerability sucks. At times it makes me feel worthless, embarrassed, and inadequate. But I'm not ready to give up on vulnerability. Don't get me wrong, I hate loving when it isn't reciprocated. I hate asking for help and being seen as incompetent. I hate expressing my feelings and having others think that I'm an emotional train wreck. I hate admitting that I was late to work because the thought of getting out of bed felt like a life or death decision. These vulnerabilities, however, have been the very building blocks upon which I have established courage, growth and, compassion.
Everyone has their personal battle they are fighting every day. I don't understand what it feels like to struggle with a pornography addiction, or to lose faith in the God I've been taught to believe in my whole life. I don't know what its like to be told that my career choice is impractical, or that my lustful desires will require disciplinary action. But I do understand weakness. I understand the need to be loved and accepted for who I am and for my best efforts.
So while you are wondering how others will accept you for your weaknesses, remember that everyone else is wondering the same thing about themselves. Reach out. Show courage. Love. Please, be vulnerable. You are underestimating the powerful influence you can have on those within your sphere of influence. A few words of kindness go a long way. Say you're sorry. Ask for help, Tell someone you appreciate them. Admit that you aren't perfect. Have a conversation with someone, even when they are no guarantees (ESPECIALLY when there are no guarantees) of it being any benefit to you. Tell someone you care about them. Take the chance that they may not appreciate it.
It is my greatest goal to be able to love and accept others, not despite of their vulnerabilities but because of them. Please, reach out to me and tell me your story! Text me, call me, send me a facebook message. I want you to know that your weaknesses are half the reason I love you.
C.S Lewis said, "To love at all is to be vulnerable". Let us choose love and vulnerability.
A huge (and incredibly inadequate) expression of gratitude to my closest friends, family, coworkers, and roommates who have been so supportive, patient, and consistent in helping me see my worth. Eternal blessings surely await you.