Hi, my name is Leah Joy Rozendaal. And I am not defined by my diagnosis. To me, it is more of a wrestling match in my own body than a “struggle” with mental health. The word struggle makes me think of someone who doesn’t fight back. They just allow the the attack. Wrestling gives me the sense of fighting back, owning what is already inside of us, and using our own skills. It is a battle.
I’ve never publicly spoken about my anxiety or depression. Mainly because I didn’t want that “label.” I didn’t want to be seen as weak, or less than. I didn’t want people to see me and only think of that diagnosis instead of who I am. Yet, I have recently noticed a pattern of how common mental illness is within my world, and how uncommon it is to speak about it. I want to change this.
I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for four and a half years on the books. But looking back, it all makes sense as to how I was wired. When I was in grade school, I always just had this feeling of dread that something was going to happen to my family. That my mom would go out for groceries and never come home. It was so crippling that I was missing school because of stomach issues that I couldn’t explain. I could never make it through a sleepover with my friends because that gut wrenching, crippling fear of something happening took over my life. It was horrifying.
As a young adult in college, I was living a life I had dreamt about. Yet, I found it hard to get out of bed. I was always sad. I wasn’t eating. I dreaded large social gatherings and always was looking for an excuse to leave. I wanted to be in sweatpants, a large tshirt, hair up, and watching a movie in bed. When I realized how different I was becoming, I was terrified. I was always known as the life of the party, the party planner, bright and cheerful girl. And she was nowhere to be found. Was I being ungrateful for everything I had been given? What was wrong with me?!? Why was I such a burden?!
I finally sought help, and my mom asked me if maybe I was suffering from depression. For some reason this felt like a death sentence to me. I only told my boyfriend and best friend at the time. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to be labeled. I didn’t want to be seen as weak, or whiney. It was a secret I held closely to my chest.
I have been on medication, which I always felt ashamed for. Always hearing others talk about how they are all natural, and God helped them overcome their depression and anxiety and they are off their meds. Great for them, but that is not everyone’s story. I always felt weak, and broken for needing a supplement.
As of lately, my anxiety has gotten so out of control that I have periods of panic that wake me up from a deep sleep. I can’t breathe, I can’t control my heart rate, I was throwing up and nauseous, and not sleeping. I finally got to a point where I sought help.
People didn’t understand. They thought I was just stressed, maybe I was pregnant and had morning sickness, that I just needed to take a day off. I even had some extremely inappropriate responses from some whom I opened up to about my mental state. This is why I am cracking open mental health. We need to be talking about this, we need to be open. Anxiety is a real illness, and the numbers are skyrocketing.
I always find comparisons helpful to explain to others who don’t suffer with mental health. I’ve read the one about comparing depression and anxiety to a snow storm. That definitely resonated with me. How some days there is a light dusting of snow that we can manage and scoop the driveway without anyone noticing. Then other days, we are snowed in and can’t make it outside. The snow piles up, we can’t do regular activities and are stuck inside with our own heads.
For me, my depression and anxiety feels like I have a stalker. A stalker that just as soon as I outrun them, I turn around, and I see them turn a corner. Run, run, run. Heart pounding, legs pumping, lungs gasping. So tired, but have to keep going. Don’t tell anyone, don’t let anyone know you’re terrified. Keep it inside. Cry in the bathroom stall in silence.
I thought it would go away. At some points, I didn’t even notice it. Then it would come back, like a stalker. It would be hiding in the next room, then slowly I would feel its presence creep up into my life at the worst times. First in the corner, locking eyes on me. Then breathing down my neck, threatening to take over my life.
On the days where my my stalker is in the front of my mind, I am too scared to go outside. For I am terrified of what is lurking outside waiting for me. I don’t want to leave the comfort of my home. I don’t want to enter into the unknown. I don’t care what my friends think. I don’t care if I miss out. I just want to shut out the world, because maybe I will feel less pain and sadness if I stay in my cozy bubble. I have no appetite. I close the blinds, so peeping eyes can’t watch me through my windows, strategizing how to take me down. I don’t have the energy to outrun my attacker. I am just trying to scrape by and “lay low” so no one notices me.
When my anxiety kicks in, I am too nervous about what I am missing out on, who is noticing I am gone, if anyone even misses me, if what I am doing is even good enough. Does everyone hate me? Do they talk about me when I leave? Why are they whispering? I sprint to my car, looking over both shoulders. Making sure “it” isn’t following me. I immediately feel alone in a crowd of people. All I can think about is leaving. But if I leave, will they immediately be glad I am gone? Will it be a relief to them? I look up, and “it” is watching me from across the room. I wait a little bit longer, and it is a couple of feet away from me. And before I can catch a breath, “it” is breathing down my neck. I physically can’t breathe, can’t think, just need to get out!
I so badly want to break free, to prove to myself that depression and anxiety do not define me.
But I am so. Tired. From fighting myself. It is a battle inside my head. Part of me wants to just coast by doing what is comfortable, the other part of me wants to succeed in large and incredible ways to prove to myself and others that anxiety and depression can be overcome. It is nothing short of exhausting. Mentally and physically. My stalker/anxiety pushes me to succeed, that I need to be better. You see, I am a Type A person. I have been deemed a control freak before. I was the type of person who got the syllabus and got all of her assignments for the semester finished within the first month. I graduated from college in 3 years with Summa Cum Laude honors. I traveled Europe all by myself and had the Instagram posts to prove it. I was senior class president. This is why people are confused that I struggle with mental health.
It confused me too, until in therapy I realized my anxiety is one of my greatest strengths, but is also my greatest weakness. My anxiety kept me up all of those nights until I perfected my paper. It had me in its tight grip the week before I got on stage to compete for a crown while I practiced my speech at every spare minute I had. It poked and prodded at me to make sure I was good enough, and wouldn’t let me rest until someone else validated my work. I saw this as my internal drive and that it was a talent of mine, when in reality it was an unhealthy relationship with anxiety. I was relying on my adrenaline to meet my goals and dreams, and would be rewarded for this unheathy cycle when I reached this goal. I would work until I physically got sick and couldn’t, like when I was working two jobs, was a full time student, and got mono. I am addicted to success, and then I crash when my body can’t handle this unhealthy lifestyle. This crash is debilitating. It is a depression I go into. For all of these years I thought I was a depressed person, but never understood as it would come in waves. Now I understand that God gave me anxiety as a tool that can be used for good, but I need to stop abusing it for my own success.
The song You Say by Lauren Daigle resonates so well with me. The story behind this song is that we have mountain tops, and we have valleys, but we need to be able to sustain ourselves and our self worth during and between both of these extremes. When you struggle with such high highs, you have incredibly low lows and it can completely take hold of your life and your identity. Trusting God in the every day, mundane is so necessary to stay grounded.
"I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low? Remind me once again just who I am, because I need to know"
If you love her song as much I do, I highly recommend hearing the story behind the song!
If you follow Enneagrams, I am a Type 4. A Romantic, a Self Starter, a Dreamer. I have extremely high highs, and very low lows. I am very sensitive, and emotional. I feel everything on a larger scale.
My goal for this year is to be completely transparent and authentic. At a business meet up networking event, we talked about our biggest dream and goal. To me it would be to make others feel like they are not alone if they are struggling with the voices inside of their head. That they are normal. That they can use those feelings for good. To teach others how to notice these signs in others. I’ve had people tell me things like “Your life is goals” “I am so jealous that you are living your dream at such a young age” “I wish I could be you!” While these compliments are so kind, it also breaks my heart that social media has caused us to only see the highlight reel of each others lives. Lets change that.
To those who are in a relationship with someone struggling:
Don’t try to fix the problem. Just listen.
If someone is bailing on you, don’t be mad. Check in! This may be a sign that they are struggling with depression and are actually needing your company and loyalty instead of your cold shoulder.
Make sure they know they are not a burden, and their emotions are not a burden.
Refrain from using language like “that is so depressing!” “this is killing me” “I would just kill myself…” “this is giving me anxiety” “I might as well kill myself.” Even if you do not mean it in a harsh way, it is hard for someone struggling to hear these words in a joking manner. For someone who has dark or depressive thoughts, to hear these spoken out loud in a casual joking manner is startling.
Refrain from saying things like “But you’re so happy, I don’t get it!” or “Lighten up!” or “Buck up buttercup!” or “What’s making you sad? You don’t have anything to be depressed about!”
Never say “you’re just stressed out” to someone struggling with anxiety.
To those that are struggling:
Have a safe person to go to that isn’t struggling to give you unbiased advice.
In the middle of an episode list 5 things you can see, 5 things you can touch, 5 things you can hear. This gets your mind off of it and focusing on something else.
Talk about something you are looking forward to. Find the peaches and dwell on those instead of the pits.
Have a code word, sign, phrase, or emoji that a loved one knows. This way you can signal that you are not doing well, and you don’t have to physically spit out the words asking for help. This is huge for me, as it is so hard to ask for help/admit how I am doing.
Be open in a safe place. For me this was my small group and my therapist. Let people in. Let people know about your fears.
Know your triggers and have a plan.
Find some relaxing hobbies. Calligraphy, yoga, water color, teaching a dog new tricks, learning the ukelele, you get the point :)
Sleep well, stay hydrated, work out (even if it’s just a walk) and treat yourself right. Be kind to yourself and your body.
Controlling your breathing does amazing things. Breathe in and think about something you are thankful for, breathe out and thank God for his gifts.
Have something tangible to look at/touch when you are out of your own head. I have an essential oil bracelet I will put lavendar on to calm me down, and a palm cross that my mom got for me. When I am having a panic attack in the night, being able to clutch on to a physical cross helps ground me.
Give your anxiety/depression a physical form or name. This has helped me disconnect from it and realize that it is not me, it is my “stalker.”
If you find this helpful, or if you are struggling, it would mean the world if you would reach out to me. Even if I help just one person in their mental health journey, I will be thankful for putting myself out on a limb here :)
I have some plans and some dreams for shining a light on mental health with some resources and more blogging. If you would be interested in learning more about this, following along, and/or participating, let me know! I have had this blog post typed up in a draft for months now for a couple of reasons. One of them being self doubt. In college, my English teacher gave me the worst grade I had ever received for my papers and my public speaking. He basically told me he hated my style of writing, thought I wasn’t a good public speaker, and that my work wasn’t any good. Yet, I find writing soothing. And ironically, I built my own business partially around journalism/expressing myself. So, I’m going to do it anyway :) I also have anxiety that people will treat me differently after reading this.
But honestly, I hope that is the case. I hope people read this and it starts more conversations about how we are really doing. How our mental health really is, and how we can end the stigma.
The wrestle is real, y’all. Stay in the fight!