When anyone asks me about myself, I tell them the things that are easy to say. I define myself in the context of where I am from, what clubs I’m involved in, my major. And when I’m talking to someone I’m romantically interested in, these simple facts form the backbone of budding conversations. We are taught that to be likeable is to be happy, that to flirt means to arm ourselves with charisma and good humor. We aim to present our best selves—to display how confident we are, how attractive, how funny. When, then, is the point when we can allow ourselves to place a higher value on a display of sincerity than on the perfect, witty reply?
Though I think it would feel unnatural and uncomfortable to skip small talk altogether, there is something to be said for the precedent that this cheerful banter sets up, especially when it comes to mental health.
If I were being uncomfortably honest, I would look every suitor in the eye and tell him that I have anxiety. I would not just say that I come from far away, but also that I used to panic on every plane ride to school because I was afraid that the stale air would choke me, afraid because I felt like the metal tube was closing in on me. I would tell him about the bell tower that I used to live next to and how I would lie in bed and panic each time I heard the slow, tedious chimes—each clang slinking steadily through the weighted night and settling into my bed—because they reminded me, especially as it got later and later, how hard it was for me to sleep. But no one wants to hear this. We all like to exist in our bubbles of positivity. But this creates another paradox: the version of me that is positive and glowing and happy is just as true as the one who, on occasion, needs to escape from a crowd. The anxiety that I feel isn’t a death-grip, but an occasional prod that sometimes pushes me off course.
Recently, after an evening spent excitedly choosing outfits and getting ready to go to a themed party with a group of my friends, I suddenly felt like I didn’t want to go. The feeling was so abrupt that I couldn’t find the words to explain how immediately and vehemently I dreaded a loud basement full of bodies. When I shamefully described my sudden decision to stay in, my friend threw her arms around me and said how much she understood.
“I get it,” she said. And then, with a squeeze of my hand, “Me too.”
Admitting that you have a mental health issue can sometimes feel like admitting your personality is somehow flawed, that the foundation of who you are is slightly cracked. So how do you seek out someone caring and sensitive if you keep getting entangled with people who don’t know how much they need to be caring and sensitive? I have never in my life wanted to seem broken—but how can I get around the fact that an unanswered text sometimes sends me reeling, that a trip to a concert can send me shoving my way to the back of the room, desperate for silence and air? I want to find some way to say, simultaneously, I don’t need saving and please understand me.
Since the last thing I do before bed is take a pill that helps me sleep, it is almost out of the question that I could spontaneously sleep in another person’s room. But I would never say this to a boy. In boarding school, I spent my days trying to prove to the boy I liked how fun and uncomplicated I was. I read him the poems I wrote about running through sunlight and traipsing across galaxies. He told me that he liked how positive I always was, how immune I was to the stress of academia. I did not tell him that the day college decisions came out, I skipped class and ran five miles into the woods to open the email on my phone so that no one would see my reaction if I didn’t get into my first choice. I didn’t tell him how I would walk alone to the health center at three in the morning in the biting cold when I had a panic attack.
But whereas my anxiety makes me nervous, makes my feelings a barrage of color too bright for me to make out, depression is different. The other week, I was talking to my friend in the Rez—a friend who gives off the impression of being so uncomplicatedly kind and so loved that I was surprised when she first spoke about her struggle—about her experience, which in many ways is the opposite of my own.
“My mental illness is less about the imposition of thought,” she said, “but rather a numbness that makes it really hard to determine or even have feelings for people. It makes me selective, it makes me fearful and reclusive.” When I asked her how it affected her romantically, she replied, “I’ve been asked whether or not I’ve considered my depression and apathy to be normal, whether it’s an advantage, and whether or not I can ‘think my way out of it.’ I’ve heard these things from romantic partners. When you talk to a partner about your mental illness, you’re running the risk that you’ll be seen as damaged goods. Mental illness is stigmatized, as much as we like to pretend it’s not, and it’s a governing decision in who we surround ourselves with. People want to befriend the happy, the eager, not the melancholic and afraid.”
And she is right. People want to surround themselves with others whom they can fully understand. Each time I meet a new person and find myself starting to develop feelings for them, I grapple with what I should keep to myself and what I should share. So often, I wish I could step into the image that they have of me and live permanently in her body. I want to be the smiling girl in Carm, the girl who laughs easily, the girl who is brave. And, so much of the time, I am her. Laughter comes easily to me; and talking to people, being in the midst of them, is so often a source of joy. And this is perhaps what is hardest to explain. I am fundamentally happy. I love people and parties and loud rooms full of friends.
But, every so often, when I feel the cold hand of anxiety growing tighter and tighter around my neck, I am thrust into a mental space where I am fundamentally alone. And no one can save me. It is no one’s job to save me. Only I can do that. The thing about having a mental health issue is that there is a separation between how I feel and what I think. A person with anxiety can understand rationally that everything is going to be okay, can draw a flowchart that points with an unwavering hand to the answer that everything is fine. But sometimes they won’t believe it.
I vow that I will explain all of this to the next person whom I develop feelings for, because how can I expect understanding from someone who does not know that there is anything to understand? And I will say, because I am the brave, laughing girl:
I am neither broken nor whole. I am me.