across the river 


by ali dominguez



Illustration by Ali Dominguez

CW: depression and anxiety

I recently read the article When a Stress Expert Battles Mental Illness where Brad Stullberg describes having a mental illness as being on one side of a river, while everyone else is on the other. He argued that you could not understand what one side of the river feels like until you swim across. Most people swim from the ‘normal side’ to the other. I swam to the other. At seventeen years old I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder after a series of panic attacks. I refused medication at the time, vowing I could learn to manage it. Years went by with a few panic attacks few and far between, bouts of anxiety that I didn’t realize were triggered by certain things and occasional debilitating mood swings. It wasn’t until I found myself vehemently depressed that I started to take my condition seriously.

"At seventeen years old I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety after a series of panic attacks. I refused medication at the time, vowing I could learn to manage it."

It began almost a year ago when I found it impossible to get small tasks done, getting out of bed seemed unimaginable, let alone getting in the shower. Even picking up my phone to scroll through social media had no appeal. All I wanted was to sleep, when I was asleep I didn’t feel the emotional emptiness that filled my brain and body. I cried so much that I almost did not notice the tears streaming down my cheeks. During my lowest moments I desperately googled, “how to feel better when depressed,” where I found relatable chat rooms and reddit posts. The most helpful advice I read was by an anonymous commenter who said the only thing that helped them was setting small goals. When I say small goals, I mean being able to tell yourself “you don’t have to take a shower, you just have to get out of bed.” Then when you finally get yourself out of bed you tell yourself again “You don’t have to eat breakfast, you just have to take a shower.” And you repeat the process while allowing yourself to stop at any point until you eventually make it to work, make it to lunch, and maybe even make it through the day. By allowing myself to only try to get through fifteen minutes at a time, the world becomes slightly more digestible again.

It was day four of not being able to get out of bed, lying there unable to move, completely paralyzed by depression that I understood what it felt like to want death. I did not necessarily want to die; I just finally understood why people get to that stage. I needed what I was feeling to end. The feeling scared me so much all I could do was cry. I realized I needed help. I needed a therapist. While I do feel better after eight months of therapy, the problem with therapy is that it is not a quick fix, it is a painful and drawn out process that helps you heal over time. I can thankfully say now that instead of feeling a constant unbearable low, my mood is generally at a constant “normal,” with an occasional extreme low and an occasional extreme high.

"I watch myself struggle, I see someone laying in bed, incapacitated by depression, it is as if it is not my own memory but someone else who I do not recognize."

Now that I am coming out of the depression (some days are still bad) I have a headspace where I am able to reflect back on what, while it was my lived experience, feels out of body. When I recall the memory, I see myself from a third person point of view, I am merely a spectator. I watch myself struggle, I see someone laying in bed, incapacitated by depression, it is as if it is not my own memory but someone else whom I do not recognize. As I begin to look forward I realize that some days will be bad and some days will be good. Over the past year, there were days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months where my mood was controlled by my anxiety coupled with this newfound depression, and then there were times that I completely forgot that I will struggle with this for the rest of my life. The hardest part of coming out of the depression is the instant mood shift I experience now. I will go from feeling fine, good even, then with the smallest trigger I will snap down into a deep spiral. I suddenly feel helpless and sick, controlled by my anxiety and I panic that the feeling will never go away. I literally cannot see past those emotions.

For me, It was not until I became extremely depressed that I considered treatment of any kind. Even though I have had many people in my life struggle with depression I never thought I would become depressed. I think a lot about how my life might have been different if I had taken preventative measures, started therapy earlier, or considered other treatment. Maybe I would have never fallen into such a deep hole?

"There are weeks where I switch to decaf coffee, I take a break from the news, I make a point to exercise or call a friend. While this helps, I am not 'better,' and I might never be."

I am still working on myself and finding ways to let other people help me. My partner knows exactly when to tell me that these feelings will not last forever, and he reassures me that they are temporary. While I do not necessarily process that notion at the time, having someone else say it out loud helps. When I come out of those lows, the pragmatic side of my brain understands the paralyzing feelings will not last forever. I also have learned to not make decisions based on how I feel during bouts of anxiety and depression. I find that people without anxiety or depression do not really understand the difference in making decisions based on all sides of my brain versus how I feel at my worst. I have had friends say why don’t you change “xyz,” it makes you so unhappy, but the unhappiness they see can’t necessarily be trusted. Sometimes the unhappiness I feel is my anxiety talking, not me. I am learning to differentiate the two, which really helps me feel more in control of my life rather than making drastic changes based on a mood shift.

On top of a lot of personal struggles and the current social, global and political climate it is impossible to feel grounded. There are weeks where I switch to decaf coffee, I take a break from the news, I make a point to exercise or call a friend. While this helps, I am not “better,” and I might never be. At the moment I accept that there are “better” days and weeks. Maybe one day there will be “better” years but I will not be better forever, my mental illness is not going away, and with that, I am still learning to cope.