The year I started high school, I began to sense that I felt my emotions more intensely than my peers and it happened with every emotion possible. From frustration to joy, happiness to complete despair. The whole thing was overwhelming. Often, it was as if I was seeing the world through a vastly different glass than those around me. And all this went on during a point that, in every girl’s life, is already a roller coaster experience. Oh, and on top of that, I was the new kid who had just moved to Pennsylvania from a completely different state. And so at that time in my life, anything that happened, good or bad, started to stay with me for a long periods of time and the feelings were stronger. The worst part was it could change on me suddenly. It affected the way I interacted, not only with friends and family, but also with myself.
I started to judge my emotions and myself harshly.
When something felt like it was going wrong, I immediately blamed it all on what I believed was my inability to control how I felt. I convinced myself that if I couldn’t regulate my emotions like everyone else, then that was the cause for my problems. It created a vicious cycle of apprehension and constant anxiety in my mind. This led to me not wanting to be social or join school events. I wanted to shut myself off from everyone.
I wanted to be alone. I didn’t share my struggles with anyone because I feared being judged. But fortunately for me, I have a big sister.
Well before I ever picked up my first paintbrush, my sister Sarah was creating beautiful pieces of art. She is one of the lucky few I believe are born with a natural talent for art. Her creativity has always stemmed into every aspect of her life. The way she dresses, how she shares stories, even into her handwriting. So when she picks up a pencil, you know what she’s going to create will be amazing. Sarah isn’t just an artist, she a wholly creative human.
When I was a freshman in high school, Sarah was a senior and well known for her artistic talents. So when I felt an urge to try and create, I mostly kept it to myself. The last thing I wanted was to be held to the same standard as her. When you share a small room though, as Sarah and I did, it’s hard to keep everything to yourself. Eventually she would see me writing, drawing or painting and ask questions. And as scared as I was of the rest of the world, she was the one person I didn’t feel awkward and anxious with. So I opened up, a tiny bit.
My sister, being the amazing woman she is, instantly started to share with me.
She shared everything. Her clothes, her art tools, her skills, and even her friends. Sarah immersed me into her creative world and nurtured the small flame that I was carrying inside me. She took me to concerts and artistic events, let me join her in creating the school’s literary magazine at the time, and most importantly shared her artistic talents with me. She was my first teacher. I have always, and always will, credit her with being the one who helped me become the artist, writer and creative that I am today.
It still wasn’t an easy road. I hated to share my work and didn’t frankly want to make many of my own friends. My anxieties were still present and my depression (though I didn’t know it then) stayed in the corner of my mind. Creativity though, was starting to give me an outlet. A way to express myself that didn’t require speaking one on one or trying to explain how I felt. I could paint or write, and just let it be.
I wish I could say that after a few years of art and writing that I conquered my struggles, but anyone who has dealt with mental health knows that’s not really the way it works. It takes time; it takes the right treatment and really, lots of time. When Sarah graduated from high school, I started to feel alone again. Even though we still lived in the same room, she had to start the new path in her life, which meant not always being able to look at mine. I still pursued my creativity and went on to make friends with fellow artists. I helped start my own literary magazine for the high school and did my best to keep on with the lessons I learned through Sarah.
In some ways, it went well and in other ways it did not.
If I could travel back in time, I would tell 16-year-old me it was okay to ask for help. I would encourage her to tell her parents, or anyone, about those feelings of sadness that still overwhelmed from time to time. But, unfortunately that is not an option and I carried that sadness with me until I graduated and went onto college.
Now, if you suffer from anxiety as I do, you know that move from high school to college was an overwhelming change. My emotions started to hit me a lot, and harder than before. Again, wish I could say it just took some adjustment and that I sought out help, but I didn’t. It took a complete breakdown my junior year before I asked for help. A lot was happening that year. College, boyfriends and the subsequent heartbreaks, financial stress, the big “where is life going” stresses and the final straw: kidney disease. All these things piled on, and I reverted back into myself as I had in high school. Again, I wanted to be alone. Only this time Sarah wasn’t able to pull me out.
I spent most of my time keeping to myself, crying at night and wishing I could stop everything all at once. I’d even stopped creating by this point.
It wasn’t until one day, after spending two hours sitting on a bench at the train station, that I realized I needed help. That morning after my train pulled in, I felt so anxious about going to school that it paralyzed me. I sat on the bench and just stared at nothing while my heart raced. Everything that had happened to me up until that point in my life, felt like it weighing on me all at once. Eventually a wonderful train conductor asked if I needed help. And I did. Just more than he realized. When I made it to campus, I immediately went to the school’s health center to speak with someone.
That was the turning point in my life, for my art and me.
After months and months of therapy, getting the right diagnosis of anxiety and depression, and going through the trail and error process of finding the right medication…I was myself again. As many people fear, I too was worried medication would change me. But what it did was make me “more me”. I started to feel like the person I remembered being as a child: unafraid, ambitious and most of all creative. I wanted to write and create again. I remember feeling as inspired as I did when I was in school with my sister. Only this time, there wasn’t a sadness hiding in the corner. That isn’t to say my anxieties or depression disappeared. Those are a part of me. But what I learned in therapy is that they don’t define me. My therapist encouraged me to use my creativity as part of treatment and now, looking back, I can see why she pushed so hard. She knew I wanted to let my art and words become part of the definition of me. And they are that and much more now. They once again became an integral part of life and are helping me not only cope, but be the person I want to see in the mirror.
In the years that have followed, I’ve learned to use my creativity as my biggest tool against anxiety and depression. It is my outlet for all those strong emotions. It is the way that I make sense of the world. How I cope when things feel a bit too much. And it also how I share my love with others, it’s how I connect to people across the world (like you!) who I might never meet. It wasn’t an easy road, but the road to my current mental happiness is in many ways tied to my creativity. And I’m thankful that there were so many wonderful people in my life who nurtured and encouraged it. Without them, it would not have been the big help that was and has been for me. For anyone who might read this, who also struggles with anxiety or depression, I hope you know you’re not alone. I know how easy it is to feel that way and at some point, I think everyone feels alone, but you have to believe that isn’t true. I, for one, am with you. And there are people all across the globe that want to help.
As always, thank you to everyone who has been a reader of my blog and continues to be. This was one of those more vulnerable posts, which I only do because I know what an amazing group of people my readers are.