I want to share my personal journey of living with anxiety and depression and the highs and lows that come with that. I feel compelled to share my story because I realize that, with all that is going on in the world right now, you might be feeling lost, scared, depressed, anxious and alone. These feelings are painful. I once felt that exact same way and frankly, I could’ve really benefited from hearing a story like this so I knew I wasn’t doomed forever.
So, to begin with, I want you to know that you are not doomed or broken. You will not feel this way for the rest of your life. The way you feel right now can and will pass, but it might require doing the hard work—the work that I once avoided myself. Everybody’s mental health journey is different, but it should always start with seeking assistance from a licensed and trained mental health professional. If you are looking for guidance on resources you can start to use now, you can find those here.
So when did it all start? In late 2015 I began to experience physiological symptoms in my body that I was unfamiliar with. At first, it was a pounding heart, dry mouth, sweaty palms and racing thoughts every morning as soon as I woke up. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I didn’t like it. Because I wasn’t educated on the signs of anxiety, I decided to keep this to myself and figure it out on my own. In all of my infinite wisdom, I determined that my brain had flipped a switch, like how someone turns a light bulb on and off, and all I needed to do was flip it back to the way it was before.
I resolved that I would accomplish this by “cleaning” myself up in January. I would rid my body of toxins through working out every single day, relaxing in the steam room at the gym and postponing my use of alcohol and marijuana for the month. I wouldn’t partake in any socializing on the weekends, and I would flip my brain back to how it used to be. So that’s what I did—every single day—for 31 days.
And I did get results—just not the results I was looking for.
By the end of the month, not only had my symptoms of anxiety intensified, but additional emotions of guilt, sadness and low self-worth had crept in. That was depression. If you’re experiencing that right now, you know how scary and debilitating it can feel. Like a thick, grey fog rolling over the hill and into my life, my brain was filled with feelings of deep sadness and hopelessness.
I was 24 years old, living in a new city far from home and battling a foe no one else could see and I couldn’t understand.
As the days passed slowly and painfully, I sank into full-blown panic mode. I thought I was losing control of my brain and needed to reel it in quickly or I would be doomed forever. So I tried every “home remedy” you could imagine. I worked out aggressively. I sat in the steam room until I was about to faint. I ran and ran until my legs felt like jelly and nearly gave out. I eagerly read books on motivation and positive thinking to will myself into an elusive sate of happiness. Nothing worked, and by the end of April, I was exhausted.
I couldn’t shut my mind off or stop the crippling thoughts. By then, I was crying a lot—by myself, late at night, in my room, so my two other roommates wouldn’t hear me. The next morning, I would drag myself out of bed, get dressed for work, and head into the office, always making sure to paint on my mask of false exuberance and competence. I didn’t want anybody to know me as Zach the Weak, the guy who couldn’t figure it out.
As May approached, a third symptom kicked in: thoughts of suicide. From the moment I opened my eyes until my head hit the pillow again, ending my own life was constantly on my mind. I thought about it while driving in rush-hour traffic to work, sitting at my desk, making phone calls, conducting performance reviews, eating lunch, working out at the gym, in my car heading home, sitting on the couch with my roommates and right before I went to bed. Sometimes I would even dream about it. No matter where I went or what I did, the overwhelming dread and desperation were always there.
I remember once attending a meeting at Toastmasters, a speaking organization I was a part of and loved, and one of the members I really liked looking at me and saying, “Zach, you look tired.” And he wasn’t wrong. I was tired, but it wasn’t all physical.
I was tired of fighting my own brain. I was tired of pretending everything was okay. Life didn’t seem worth living anymore.
A few weeks later, I hit my rock-bottom moment. I confided in my parents by telling them everything I was experiencing and was encouraged by them to seek help. It was the first time I had ever accepted permission from anyone to pursue better mental health. Truthfully, I didn’t even think seeking help for your brain was an option. I had only heard the term “shrink” used any time someone talked about seeing a therapist. I had never taken it seriously.
The very next day, I started to make phone calls around town to schedule an appointment. I wanted relief, and I wanted it fast. After a bit of trial and error, I eventually found a psychologist who understood what was going on with me. In late 2016, nearly a year into this arduous journey, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and entered into a talk therapy wellness plan. I utilized Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) to treat my symptoms. And it started to work.
Eventually, my symptoms of anxiety and depression began to lessen. With time, I started to regain my mental and emotional strength. Today, I am proud to say that I rarely feel depression anymore, and my anxiety has greatly improved.
Through my exploration, I’ve learned that we all experience struggles with our mental health and that it’s just as important as our physical health. I’ve also realized how short-sighted it was that I felt ashamed about what I was going through. I felt how I felt, and that was that. It wasn’t like I chose to feel this way; it just happened. If someone else had a problem with it, frankly I didn’t have time for them. I had already made myself feel terrible; I didn’t need anybody else trying to make me feel guilty.
This is why I speak out and travel the country, educating students and organizations about mental health: so that others, like you, don’t have to feel embarrassed or ashamed by what they’re feeling right now.
My journey to recovery was not easy or short. It took me a little bit of time and a lot of effort to relearn my brain, but four years later, I am so thankful that I took the necessary step of seeking professional help. It has made all the difference in my life, and I know it will for you too.
You might really be struggling right now with all that is going on in the world. First, I want you to understand that you are not alone. You are completely justified in how you are feeling. Emotions like anxiety and depression are much more common than you realize.
Secondly, if you are feeling any of the symptoms for anxiety or depression, this might be a sign you are experiencing anxiety and depression. This may feel shocking, scary or upsetting. I once felt that way too, so I understand what you’re going through. The very best thing you can do is start the process of healing yourself. Do not wait until things are so bad that you barely want to live anymore, like I did. Start now. The work of opening up and sharing what you are feeling can be some of the hardest work you do, but I promise you, as somebody who has been through it, it is so, so worth it.
I hope at the very least this helped you feel less alone and at the very best got you to seek help. Take the first step. Your future self will thank you for it.