Part II: "Only White People Get Anxiety" by Jessica Viada
This is Part II of a 2-part series from our guest writer, Jessica Viada, about the cultural stigma associated with mental illness and how those perceptions kept her from getting help for too long. You can read Part I here. Also, make sure you tell Jessica (on Insta or in our comments) that you want her back. <3
When I was a teenager, I wanted to commit suicide. I mean, what teenage girl hasn’t had a moment in which she wants to stick her head in the oven?
Female adolescence is not for the weak.
Still, from ages thirteen through seventeen, I led a double life. By day, I got ready for school, laughed with friends, played sports, and got good grades. By night I’d lock myself in the bathroom and hold a razor to my wrists, praying for the strength to push down, then berating myself when I inevitably chickened out.
I also believed I had no reason to be doing this. I wasn’t bullied. I had friends. I got good grades. I traveled. I was headed for college. But when I wasn’t crying out of sadness, I was crying out of frustration, “over nothing,” as my parents would tell me.
And they were right; all I had to do was look around. Orange County was a desert oasis compared with their Third-World childhoods.
My dad has a thing with germs.
This makes his thing with hoarding papers tedious. Every time he brings a newspaper or magazine into the house, he has to wipe it with a damp paper towel before adding it to the stacks of papers on the floor next to the kitchen table, his office, his bed. If he comes home from running errands, he has to change clothes before sitting on any of the furniture. The skin on his hands gets dry and cracked from over-washing.
I once watched him chase a mentally ill homeless man away from my mom, not because the man was crazy, but because he was dirty. When I come home for a visit, he has to wipe my suitcase down with a wet rag before it can go on the floor of the guest bedroom.
I once asked my mom how my dad could have possibly grown up in Honduras, where flies and dirt and sweat and car exhaust are an inseparable part of daily life. She told me his mother was the same way.
The first time I saw a therapist I was in my late twenties.
I remember waking every morning in a terrible rage and understanding that this feeling wasn’t sustainable. My therapist was a slovenly older man with yellowed skin and long fingernails who wore polyester pants the color of pipe tobacco and told me my problem was that I didn’t like to feel my feelings.
“That’s why every negative feeling you have you feel as anger,” he said. “Anger is a masking emotion. It makes you feel like you’re in control, but you’re not.”
I sat on his couch and rage-cried while he watched me feel my emotions. He was right, but his compassion was underwhelming. A few weeks later I discontinued our sessions by never calling him again. I thought I’d gotten what he’d had to offer, and now I could continue muscling along with a greater degree of self-awareness.
While living in New Orleans in my early thirties, I went through a four-month period without sleep.
Every night I would wake at two in the morning, and no matter what I did I couldn’t get back to sleep until half an hour before it was time to get up for work. I tried: going to bed earlier, later, running, yoga, Ambien, Xanax. The sleeplessness unraveled my mind to the point where it was impossible to muscle through. I met with a new therapist, an Uptown blonde woman close to my age.
“I feel like everything around me is in color and I’m gray and everything I touch turns gray,” I told her. “I hate everything.” After a few sessions she concluded I was riddled with anxiety and experienced depression like a child,
my depression was presenting as irritability and anger.
I heard this as a personal attack. She wrote down some exercises for me to practice before bed. They did nothing.
Only later when I was living in New York did I understand what she meant. For me, anxiety meant shoving strangers out of my personal space on crowded train cars, snapping at slow-walking tourists, nagging at my husband like a harpy over dog hair and dirty dishes, my jaw eternally clenched and ready for confrontation.
One day, I left my office at lunchtime and called a friend crying. “Do not go back to work,” she ordered. “I’ll be right there.” She found me outside a coffee shop and concluded that I needed joy in my life. “Let’s do something fun,” she said. “What do you feel like doing?”
By then I was so far gone that I could not think of a single fun thing to do.
Nothing sounded fun. Everything was wrong. But because I trusted my friend, I let her take me to the French Quarter where we had our fortunes told and ate lunch and got some beer. By the end of the afternoon, my mood had lifted enough that I agreed to see her doctor.
The doctor, far from judging me, was nothing but compassionate and kind. He suggested Lexapro like it was no big deal, and in my desperation I was ready to try anything to get a full night’s sleep.
I clearly remember the first day I felt the Lexapro kick in. I was ironing a dress and suddenly felt like leaving the house, a small but momentous thing.
For months, actually let’s be real, for most of my life, I would have to mentally “gear up” before leaving the house. Meaning that if I had some errands to run, I’d have to build in a “gearing up” window of time. If I planned on leaving the house at noon, I’d actually get out of the house around two or three. What was I doing? Checking email, sending a text, watching a movie. Basically I would procrastinate until I really had to go.
My dad does this too, but of course we’ve never talked about it and I don’t know if his motivations are the same as mine. But the day the Lexapro kicked in, I felt a heaviness lift. I could do everything I normally did, but it all took less effort.
It felt like something I’d been dragging behind me had dissolved.
I called my mom, steeling myself for the judgmental things she might say when she learned I was on antidepressants. “Oh,” she said instead. “I took Lexapro. It’s a good one. It’s been around for awhile, and I didn’t have any side effects.”
“What? You did? When?”
“Well, I was on it for about a year, and then I stopped and never needed it again.”
“And you didn’t think that information might be helpful for me?”
“Why? You’re young. What do you have to worry about?”
A year after I started taking Lexapro, I stopped.
I had quit my job and moved to New York City, and in the absence of health insurance my prescription was going to cost $200 a month. Besides, I felt much better, and I still hated the idea of having to take a pill every day like a pacifier, a security blanket.
I still believed that I should be able to handle my shit on my own.
Taking a pill was an admission of weakness, a symbol of my inability to control myself. I am not a weak person. Still, a year and a half went by before I realized something was wrong. I was irritable all the time. Work tasks that should have taken an hour to finish were taking days. “How long have you been feeling this way?” my doctor asked when I finally worked up the courage to ask for a new prescription.
“About four months.”
“Why did you wait so long? This is New York. Everyone is on antidepressants. You didn’t even have to come in. You could’ve just called.”
Exactly one week after starting my new prescription, I felt the same sensation of a heaviness lifting. Things were clearer. I wasn’t constantly exhausted. I could move through the world more easily. I still felt anxiety and depression sometimes, but they didn’t crowd everything else out. A depression that would threaten to sink in and settle before was now nothing more than a bad day. Why had I let myself sink for four months?
Just because we refuse to name a thing doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I think of the alcoholics in my family, the way they’re spoken of as if their addiction were a lack of self-control. I think about how my mother and I react the same way to the same stimuli. The difference between us is she’ll say, “That screaming kid! I’m a nervous wreck,” whereas I’ve learned to say, “That kid sparked my anxiety.”
I’m not entirely convinced yet, but I’m starting to believe that I am not my anxiety, that it’s not something inherently wrong with me. It doesn’t mean I’m weak or can’t control myself.
I’ve learned there’s no reason to white-knuckle it and to pay attention to the little things: eight hours of sleep, regular exercise, not drinking too much, healthy eating, time outside. These small things add up and help me feel balanced. I spent years dismissing mental illness, dismissing myself, but uncovering my family’s history has helped me expand the way I understand that it’s not only about me, it’s also about everyone who came before me.