By Mariah Wills
I've spent the better part of the past year in excavation mode, tearing down walls. I can’t remember when it exactly started, but at some point along the way I realized I was sick of living within the boundaries of what was comfortable. So, I gathered some courage and started digging, and piece by piece, brick by brick, I've been tearing down the fortress I've been building for years.
These days, openness looks a lot like shaky hands and stumbling words. I've never been good at talking about the hard stuff; in fact, I'm notoriously good at avoiding the hard stuff all together. But, as I've discovered time and again, this does nothing but make things worse. So here I am laying out the mess and holding up a sign inviting others to do the same—to put aside the facade of perfection and sit a moment with the hard stuff. This doesn't mean dwelling on your struggles or defining yourself by them. It means simply acknowledging them—sharing the not-so-pretty parts of life, the parts that play just as much of a role in shaping us as the good parts do. Our stories have so much more power than we realize, and when we share them, we have the ability to reach others, to make someone else dealing with similar things feel a lot less alone.
My own story revolves around mental health. My experience with mental illness and recovery began when I was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 10. At a time when most kids should be worried about sleepovers and soccer games, I worried about measurements and nutrition facts, suffocating myself with the need for perfection and control in my life. I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grade in an intensive outpatient therapy program. There, I learned about the role mental health plays in physical health and how inseparable the two really are. As if this wasn’t enough to wrap my head around as a fourth grader, my doctor also diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, explaining that other conditions, like anorexia, can manifest as a result, or in a co-occurring fashion.
There is certainly no standard experience of anxiety, but for me, it feels a lot like running a race without sight of the finish line. My back stiffens, my throat constricts, and I lose the ability to think about anything else. I get anxiety about most things, both big and small. Rationally, I know it isn’t warranted and it doesn’t make sense, but once it starts, the panic sticks in my mind, burrowing itself further into my brain and seeping down into every inch of my body. Anxiety is a natural part of life, but anxiety disorders differ in that the feeling doesn’t rise and fall like natural emotion; it is much harder to control.
Since that therapy program years ago, my journey with anxiety and mental health has been admittedly messy. For a long time, I kept that summer, and every appointment and treatment that followed, very quiet. Alongside the embarrassment and shame that often comes with mental illness, I’ve always felt a certain sense of guilt about it as well. What right do I have to be sad and anxious when there are other people who have it way worse than I do? What if I had to face problems that were bigger than these ones; how would I even be able to handle it? But this is the problem with mental illness. So often, we don’t talk about it because of these feelings of shame and guilt, and as a result, it makes the situation that much harder to overcome.
Last year at this time, I began taking medication for my anxiety. This decision came at a time in my life when I should have been the most happy and fulfilled. I was in school working toward a career I am passionate about, surrounded by friends and family who are as supportive and loving as can be, and I felt more driven and determined than I ever have before. However, at the same time, I felt like I was gripping on to all of it by the skin of my teeth. I came home every day exhausted from nothing but battling my own mind—my anxiety robbing me of the happiness that I knew I should have felt, that I so desperately wanted to relish in.
Because of my experiences, I have always tried to support others in their decisions to improve their mental health. However, when it came to my own journey, I couldn’t help but feel it was a massive defeat. I remember watching my doctor as she wrote out the prescription I had been avoiding for years. I have always prided myself on being independent, able to fix my own problems if need be. So, as she went on to describe how the medication, combined with other forms of treatment would help to “fix” my anxiety, I couldn’t help but think I should have been able to “fix” this myself.
It was during this time that I came across Dissonance at a concert for one of my favorite artists, Your Smith. Board members were there talking to concert-goers about mental health and recovery and selling T-shirts created in collaboration with Your Smith, then known as Caroline Smith. The T-shirts—both a Dissonance outreach campaign and a fundraiser for the nonprofit—featured a quote from Caroline: “Literally everyone can benefit from therapy.” I am not usually someone who looks for signs, but something about the way they spoke about mental health in such a casual and supportive way stuck with me. That night, something shifted in the way I viewed my situation. Slowly I began to open up, first to family and then to friends, pouring out the ugly, the uncomfortable, and the strange. To my surprise, I found that as I opened up to others, they began to feel comfortable enough to open up to me about their experiences as well. All this time, I had been dealing with these things alone, while some of the people closest to me were dealing with them, too.
So today, I am trying to remain open and honest. I don’t talk about these things to be weird or depressing. I talk about them because—although they do not define me—they make up a part of who I am. Maybe these things play a role in your life too, and maybe, like me, you need someone to reach out and say, “me too.” We all deserve to be loved and known for our most authentic selves. Until we start sharing our stories, bearing our mess, and listening to each other, we cannot truly be understood. So grab your shovel, and let’s get to work.
Mariah Wills is a student at the University of St. Thomas and a Dissonance board intern.