In first grade, we took a field trip to the hospital. Why? I don’t know. Especially since we weren’t focusing on health and wellness at any point that school year. It was a random trip, and it was poorly planned because it scarred a lot of my classmates and me for the rest of the day. Actually, I’m still scarred because I’m still dealing with subconscious trauma.
When we got to the hospital, we went through some sort of orientation, telling us what kind of people work there and who/what they take care of, and then they did a mini seminar at the end of the orientation that went through the steps of living a healthy lifestyle. One of the things that they emphasized was frequent hand-washing. They spent probably 20 minutes on hand-washing alone, and at the end of the presentation, they pulled out a mason jar filled with a yellow liquid that had noodles—or what I thought were noodles—in it. Turns out—and unfortunately I remember this way too vividly— they were live worms that had come out of someone’s stomach. These worms had come from a gardener who didn’t wash his hands after tilling soil and planting, and when he went to eat, he unintentionally introduced microscopic larvae into his system. The worms grew in his stomach, and he died. Now, I don’t know how true that story is, but it scared the crap out of my classmates and me. We went through the whole trip being careful not to touch literally ANYTHING, and when we finally got back to school, we all got in line to wash our hands.
Ever since then, I’ve had anxiety with germs. Most kids ask the question, “why?” a million times. I asked the question, “will I get sick if I eat this?” before any snack or meal that I ate. Thinking about it now, there were so many signs that I was going through something. SO many. But it didn’t really hit me hard until my junior year of high school.
I had just gotten my first car, and usually, my best friends would ride with me to school. On October 31, 2012, one of my best friends called me early in the morning and said that she was not coming to school that day because her entire family had come down with the stomach flu. At this moment, my entire life changed. I didn’t know at the time, but what I would soon come to find out is that I suffer from emetophobia, a phobia that causes intense anxiety from anything pertaining to vomiting. This includes the anxiety of vomiting in public, a fear of watching or hearing someone vomit, and the fear of being nauseated. When my best friend told me that she had the stomach flu, my heart started beating so fast that I could feel it about to jump out of my chest and down the street. Just the thought of throwing up terrified me, and I didn’t exactly know why.
That entire day, just like at the hospital back in first grade, I was cautious about everything I touched, and I skipped lunch because I didn’t want anything to make me sick. When my best friend was better, and came back to school two days later, I made small talk with her, but started inadvertently avoiding her because I was afraid of getting sick, even though there was no way possible that it could happen.
As the weeks progressed, I fell deeper and deeper into a hole, and with each passing week, I became more distant. From everyone. I was starting to isolate myself from my friends and family, going days (yes, days) without eating, excessively washing my hands to the point of being raw and painful, and growing an increasingly terrifying and unhealthy attachment to my mother. Because I was so afraid of getting sick, I no longer had any interest in normal human contact. This caused me to spiral down into a depression that ultimately had me contemplating suicide because I felt so alone. I didn’t know how to ask for help because in a black household, there’s no such thing as mental health. You either pray it away, or you “deal with it”. I insisted on curling up next to my mom every night because her presence was the only thing that calmed me, and that’s how I “dealt with it”. But over time, even that wasn’t enough to ease my mind at night. I was declining quickly, and it wasn’t until one night when I looked at a bottle of hydrocodone from a previous surgery that I’d had and wondered what it’d be like to end it all, that I finally realized that I needed to talk to someone.
The very next day, we went to my pediatrician to get a referral to a pediatric psychiatrist. Within the next month, I was diagnosed with Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. My psychiatrist referred me to a therapist who then put me on high dosages of antidepressants and we began intensive cognitive behavioral therapy. At first, every appointment was draining. I came home not wanting to talk about anything. My mother would think that I was just holding things back from her, but truly, I was trying to figure out what exactly was going on inside myself. Questions were being asked, and I knew the answers to none of them. But as time progressed and I started to trust my psychiatrist and therapist, I started to see that they weren’t trying to trick me or ask me hard questions for the fun of it or even make me do difficult tasks just to see me squirm. They were doing these things because they wanted me to reflect. On my early childhood. On my current stress. They wanted me to understand why I am the way I am, and then take that information and shape it into a different perspective. A perspective that didn’t consist of me asking the question of “why?”, but now asking, “how can I make the best of this?”
One of the main things that I took away from this therapy is the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that allows the individual to focus on the present moment and let go of any negative thoughts that come with depression and anxiety. This exercise also aids the individual in pinpointing the specific signs that happen before a depressive and/or anxious episode so that they are more aware of them before they happen and can possibly formulate a plan to intervene with the feelings before they get too severe. If you’re an anxious person, and I mean someone who is truly suffering from anxiety disorder, then you know how difficult mindfulness can be.
Mindfulness is another way to keep the individual from dwelling on things they have no control over, especially those whose depression is a result of anxiety, like mine. Another way that it has helped me cope is to focus on things that make me happy and feel worthy. For instance, in college, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. It kept me busy, and—especially at conferences—I was surrounded by people who love service and giving back as much as I do. Staying busy by indulging in things that I’m passionate about makes me happy, and it keeps my mind from wandering off into the abyss.
A strong support system is also vital to your success. Whether it’s your close friend, you significant other, your family, whoever, having someone who will listen and stand by you during your times of need will prove to be a lifesaver, literally. Since my diagnosis, my family and my closest friends have been my biggest supporters. They have grown to become more understanding of my condition as well as me as a person. They know me in and out, and I am beyond thankful for them. Without them and their willingness to open their minds, I would not have been able to overcome any of this. I thank God that we were able to come together and figure out what was happening to me before it was too late.
One last thing to remember when dealing with depression and anxiety is to never lose sight of ANYTHING. As a person who is diagnosed with a disorder that thrives on hopelessness and talking to other people who have the same disorder, I can only imagine the sideways looks that I’m getting right now. I realize that this might be a reach…
But, hear me out.
As humans, we thrive on being hopeful and having dreams. When we no longer have anything to believe in, we start losing ourselves and questioning our purpose. Having dreams and goals and keeping our hope alive gives us something to live for. This is something that I’ve struggled with because, at first, I didn’t know myself. If we don’t know ourselves, we don’t quite know what we want out of life, so that ends in us not knowing how or what to be passionate about. I’ve spent my college years learning about who I am, what I like, what I want, and how I want to live my life. Knowing these things about myself has helped me stay hopeful because now I don’t have to listen to or believe the lies that society tells me. I know who I am, therefore, I know that I am able to do anything as long as I keep pushing.
Develop this same mindset.
Genuinely learn who you are and what you’re passionate about. And in the meantime, look forward to the little things. If you don’t have anything to look forward to, GIVE yourself something. Whether it’s waking up tomorrow and starting over, or even looking forward to an ice cream cone after work or class, these small joys add up.
All in all, you can do this. You are here for a reason. You just have to work to discover it. Life isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. You are loved. You are cherished. Never forget that.
Hugs and kisses,