2017 was supposed to be my year.
I’d walked into the year newly 24, down sixty pounds, with a solid job and solid people around me. And then in one fell-swoop, my world came crashing down around me when I lost my job. Between February and July, I’d slipped into a deep depression, gained all the weight back, and all the carefully-crafted confidence I’d placed in self-image and self-accomplishment slowly burned in front of my eyes. It was that year, that summer specifically, that life handed me a crash-course on my mental illness that had been in the shadows since childhood. 2017 forced me to look in the mirror and see that the battle was far from over, my body war-torn and exhausted.
The worst part about struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder hands-down are the intrusive thoughts, the snake-like fear that winds around and starts to squeeze the life out of you. OCD is a deep anxiety, a deep need to cleanse and purge and perfect so our brains tell us that the way out this hell is a lot of ritual, a lot of feeling the need to tame a monster that may or may not exist, a lot of believing what everyone says about you because your brain is convinced you’re bad, so anything negative said about you must certainly be true. And with this over-active, twisting mental illness, it’s hard to decipher whether a hard time is a momentary relapse or something urgent that should be taken care of immediately.
By this time, spiritual fears and ideations had been plaguing me for nearly 8 years. Those fears combined with my mental illness took me through a rigorous loop of fear and ritual and panic attacks. I didn’t know anything was wrong; I just thought I was so bad I was unredeemable and God was punishing me. I didn’t know there was a way out of the dark.
At that time, I feasted on people’s opinions of me like they were my lifeline. A negative Facebook comment would send me into a spiral. A comment from a well-meaning friend or relative that caused me to feel misunderstood would make me want to disappear and be new. I constantly and anxiously wrote mental narratives of what would happen, what people thought, and how I was being perceived. With the loss of all my hard work and accomplishment that year, I had to face the reality that even with all the external changes and newly-found approval, nothing had changed inside and I was still sick. Summer of 2017 was the closest place to hell I’ve ever been.
I was lost that summer. I was suicidal that summer. I was sick that summer. I was angry that summer.
In June of that year, my brother offered to let me escape my reality by staying at his apartment in Atlanta while he was on vacation. Convinced being alone would be my refuge, I agreed, packed a bag, and drove the 2.5 hours between Greenville and Atlanta. I arrived on Saturday with my brother and sister, but by Sunday afternoon I was completely alone with my thoughts.
For two nights I stayed up into the early hours of the morning, the sheets stretched up to my chin. I distracted myself from the fear by watching rom-coms and scrolling social media. It was anything to keep the fear at bay, late-night phone calls to my dad, opening up my Bible and just wishing the peace would flow over me but not knowing how to find it. It was prayers to God that felt like they didn’t make it past the concrete ceiling of that one-room apartment. It was panic attacks that left tears streaming down my face, replaying suicidal ideations through my mind again and again. “What if I did something? What if I snapped? What if, what if, what if?” Being in my head felt like being in a boxing match with my demons while being covered in tar, nearly impossible. My brain became a horror film, my own imagination that had seen me through childhood hardships suddenly an unpredictable place, strewn with intrusive thoughts and laced with fear. Anything could be a trigger during that time, even after finding my therapist later that summer.
My stay in Atlanta lasted a total of three nights and a part of one day, before I packed my bags and drove home to Greenville like the runaway I felt like. On one of those nights, though, I caught a glimpse of sweet relief from the fear that was raking me across the coals. Above me, in a second-story apartment late that night, I could hear someone walking around before bedtime. I heard someone puttering around their one-room apartment: putting up dishes, turning off television, brushing their teeth. I wanted to pound on the walls of my mental prison and yell, “Can you help me?” but instead I stayed quiet and just listened, my heartbeat slowing for just a moment.
Someone was up there, living.
Someone was near.
I sank down into the fold-up bed a little deeper, staring up at the dark ceiling and thought, “Please keep moving. Please don’t go. Please stay.” When they did finally go to bed, I felt somewhat calmer, just knowing I wasn’t alone, and eventually drifted to sleep.
I would go through that mental space twelve times over to get to sit here, on my porch, and write you this letter, friend. If you take nothing else from this essay, take these words: you matter more than you know. Much, much more than you know.
I learned from experience that night that sometimes simply being present is all someone needs from you. It doesn’t matter if you have the words, the resources, the experience, the definitive answers, or the charismatic personality.
You have no idea if something you’re doing is giving someone else encouragement to keep going. That scary, vulnerable Facebook post? Share it. That person you’re thinking about? Shoot them a text. That person you can’t talk to but you keep thinking about? Send up a prayer. Sometimes it’s something as simple as giving yourself permission to mill around your apartment on a summer night because you can’t sleep.
You never know when you being awake is helping someone else get rest.
Someone needs you today. Someone needs you in the most simplistic, yet profound of ways. Someone needs to hear your voice. Someone needs to hear your story. Someone needs to see your awkward, real moments. Someone needs to see you running late into a meeting with a coffee stain on your shirt and your hair messy. Someone needs to see you trip up. Someone needs to see you mess up. Someone needs to hear you fumble for words.
How do you help others? By showing up and bringing your humanity. By doing what you can. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together and we all are little pieces of a much-broader picture that we don’t understand yet.