Stop the SHAME
I thought I was “crazy” for being in therapy.
Three years ago, I experienced my first panic attack, which led to acute depression as a junior in college. When I had first started feeling “under the weather,” I kept telling myself that it was from stress and sleep deprivation due to midterms and finals. Most likely—true. But it ended up a bigger deal than I had wanted it to be.
My first panic attack seemed to come out of the blue. One minute, I felt fine, and the next, I suddenly had this tight-band feeling above my nose, which always clammed up my hands. My pulse quickened, which left a tightness in my chest. Pressure—as if I had on one of those thick hospital bandages wrapped around my head. Then, I felt sick to my stomach, like having butterflies before going on an interview.
I woke up like this for two months and had difficulty doing anything. Something was not right whenever my heart started racing and I wanted more than anything to get up and run and hide. But I avoided help of any kind, because, to me, doing so meant that I was a failure. It seemed impossible to finish homework, sit in class, or even go for a walk without feeling that the world was going to cave in.
Later, I learned that panic attacks are commonly activated by triggers, and my triggers were the catastrophizing thoughts of everything. What if I never feel physically better? What if my anxiety prevents me from taking my finals or turning in an assignment? What if my symptoms get worse and I pass out from shallow breathing? What if people can tell I’m mid-panic? What if…?
To cope with my anxiety, I would force myself to fall back asleep, already dreading if that the attacks might ruin my day. The stress and worrying slowly developed into the early stages of depression. All I wanted to do was sleep and never think about anything else.
One Sunday morning, my mom woke me up, asking if I was planning to get out of bed. There was nowhere I had to go, but it was 11am, and usually I was already up by this time. My mother was concerned, and I suppose this was the moment when she had realized that something was wrong. It was literally my wakeup call because by this point, I had already been debating whether or not I should pick up the phone to make the call.
I finally reached out to at least five therapists, and they answered the same way: “What’s your primary health insurance? Are you independent or dependent? [meaning are you under a guardians’ plan] Great, but we’ll need to check with your health insurance.” I realized how much work it would be to find the one. Who would be able to help me defeat both anxiety and depression? Taking control of my life again was harder than I had thought and made my anxiety even worse.
Prior to my first therapy session, I was pissed off and irritated. I couldn’t believe I was actually going through with this bullshit called therapy. I grew up knowing what therapy was; however, it was always the “unspoken” or “It-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” The mention of therapy, let alone mental health, was my own Lord Voldemort—nobody talked about it, and something about the word felt shameful.
But for whatever reason—luckily—I still went. As I sat at the edge of the black leather chair in the small waiting room, all I kept thinking about was how much I wanted the one-hour session to be over with. It was one thing to pick up the phone and get an appointment, but to actually sit down and have to make eye contact with someone—a stranger—and talk about my feelings was even scarier. What if a professional could not help me?
I honestly cannot remember if anyone else was in the waiting room. There was too much adrenaline pumping through my body, and I tried my best to not get up and run.
It was all a blur from there on—getting called in from my soon-to-be therapist, rising from my seat, doing a walk-of-shame to the door, down a short hallway, and straight into the room. Once the door shut, it hit me how much my life would change from here on because I had the choice: to be honest with another person and with myself.
Once the session started, it felt like an interview, or some weird and awkward reality dating show. One of us clearly did not want to be there—
Why are you here?
It was either the second or third question that my therapist had asked me before we progressed further into our Q&A session. I blurted out “panic attacks” and a lot of “I think” and “I feel.” My therapist confirmed that my symptoms were, indeed, panic attacks and acute depression. That part sucked the most as I felt my body lower into the couch. Numb, as if all the blood had rushed to my feet.
I learned a lot within that one-hour session, including the fact that anxiety does sometimes develop into depression. My therapist had strictly informed me that the shame, guilt, and fear was completely normal and common for anyone with anxiety and depression to have. I was struck by the correlation between mental health issues and young adults. Especially with college—changes, such as moving and living away from home to the pressures of getting good grades, can cause many students to go through what I had been experiencing.
For the following months, I went to therapy on a weekly basis, until my therapist and I had agreed to spreading out our sessions to allow myself to cope on my own. Picking up my hobbies and projects helped me work through the depression. I started writing and editing short films that I was already working on in-between classes. Ironically, one of the stories dealt with mental health, primarily focused on anxiety for a leading character of my age. I think that helped me overcome the fears of never being able to talk about mental health, including my own. The anxiety came and went during my final semesters of college—some days were good, while others seemed never-ending.
I kept my history with anxiety and depression a secret until the year after college, when a cousin of mine started her own battle with panic attacks.
I reached out to her and left the number for my therapist, encouraging her to talk to someone outside of the family circle. She approached me a few days later and asked about my own history with anxiety and my coping strategies with attacks. It was the first time I felt proud to tell my story about my struggle. Shame was no longer an option, especially when I finally admitted to my cousin that I was still getting help through therapy.
But not everyone is supportive when it comes to recovery, let alone therapy. I had learned this after a former friend made some degrading comments about those in recovery. For weeks, I brushed aside a lot of what she said because I thought I had misheard or misinterpreted her words.
One evening, it hit me that I had to be honest about going to therapy. I was helping my friend on a project that dealt with death, survival, and recovery, and it was taking an emotional toll on me. I unloaded my secret, and she listened and said nothing. An hour later, when we were talking with some friends, I stood dumbfounded as she said: “I don’t understand why people go to therapy. Therapy is a waste of time and money. People should just take acting classes and never deal with their stuff.”
It was one thing to hear those words, but quite another to remember how she looked directly at me after speaking. We stopped talking a few weeks later.
Mental health and recovery should never be looked down upon, and I believe over time that the shaming will come to an end, especially the more people start talking about it. For years, I was terrified to even whisper about my mental health until I started returning to and revising projects from high school and college. One day, an article of mine—about how my time as a Conan O’Brien intern helping me defeat my anxiety—was published online. The responses to, as well as writing of, that article made me realize just how many individuals of all ages have experienced a mental health condition and/or recovery themselves, including therapy.
For me, writing and filmmaking has encouraged me to no longer keep my use of therapy a secret. Recently, I jumped back into a particular screenplay of mine called “The Extraordinary Ordinary,” which is about three college students and how they navigate mental health. My team and I are in the process of filming the entire feature within the year. My hope is that, through film, I can help bring awareness to both mental health issues in teens and young adults as well as the stigmas that most of us face on a daily basis. I want people to know that social stigmas can be defeated by voicing our own story.