Depression, anxiety, and doing it anyway

When I was about nineteen I was diagnosed with moderate depression and social anxiety, but the symptoms had begun a few years before that.  Naturally a confident and even precocious person, I had become less assertive, more paranoid, and finally reached the point where the prospect of an innocuous activity like attending a small get-together at a friend's house could trigger a panic attack.  Insidiously, depression ate away at my sense of self and anxiety amplified my most self-destructive thoughts. It came with me when I went away to university in Manchester, and remained as I eventually began preparing for my year studying abroad.  Shortly before I left, someone close to me told me, "I'm just worried you won't make any friends."  Her concern was real, she'd watched me retreat further and further into myself over the past few years, and here I was about to take off across the world completely alone.

But as it turned out, she was wrong.  Studying abroad in California eroded my social anxiety to the point that now, four years later, I find it hard to even remember what it felt like.  I had formed a tightly knit social group by the end of orientation, and my natural instinct to avoid human interaction was impeded by the fact that I shared a bedroom with one of my best friends.  I became more confident instigating activities, and my nervous tics like hand-wringing abated.  When I went back to the UK, people told me how much I changed, and in many ways, they were right.

Mental illness is so complex, not least because it is invisible.  I was upset that people thought I had changed, because as I saw it, I was back to being myself - the person who existed before the anxiety.  I was hurt that symptoms of an illness had been conflated with my actual personality.  But at the same time, I had gone through more than anyone could imagine.  Wresting off years of irrational negativity, literally retraining your brain to think differently, is a mammoth task, and emotionally exhausting.  When I had social anxiety, some people didn't realise there was anything wrong with me, viewing me as being antisocial, or moody, or shy.  I am not any of these things nor ever have been, but anxiety had such a profound impact on my life it obfuscated the person beneath.

Unfortunately depression was harder to shake, but then again depression had a hold on me years before the social anxiety began flexing its muscles.  It is hard to articulate exactly what depression feels like, probably because a lot of the time, you don't feel anything at all.  Just numb.  When my depression is bad, I lose my appetite, I don't want to see anyone or do anything.  When I have personal setbacks, my brain goes into attack mode.  Of course he dumped you, how stupid you are for imagining he would feel anything for you.  Of course you didn't get an interview, you must be delusional to think you'd be qualified.  In this way my brain reinforces negative self-perceptions by framing life events as proof of my unworthiness.  It gives a loudspeaker to the worst things I think about myself while drowning out the good.

One thing I can say for certain though, is that my depression does not rule my life, and that is because I decided to travel.  Studying abroad was one of the most powerful, inspirational things I've ever done.  I proved to myself just how much I am capable of, navigating the logistics of living and studying in another country while simultaneously overcoming the social anxiety that had been stifling me for years.  And while I do still struggle with depression from time to time, for the most part I am so happy and proud of myself and the life I have built.  What travel has done is remind me who I am, beneath the fog of mental illness.  I know that I am not a loner, but a loving friend who has forged strong relationships across the globe; I am not a loser, but a decisive, independent and fearless woman.  Travel has stimulated my brain, ever thirsty for knowledge, and made my heart soar with the prospect of new adventures.

Overcoming depression is not an easy task, but if, like me, you have suffered from it and still made the choice to go out there and experience the world around you, that is something you should be immensely proud of.  I know I am.

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