CW: trauma responses, mental health
May is (was) Mental Health Awareness Month, and even though it’s taken me until June (recovering perfectionist, you can read more about that here), I finally wrote a blog about my own mental health. I have dealt with mental health disorders for the past 15 years or so, and I wanted to take the time to share with you a little background on my journey with my mental health, and what I continue to learn.
It’s easy to think about our lives in a straight line. The way we have chosen to organize time (because it is a construct after all) is orderly and methodical. And in our culture as well, there is an unspoken order to things. You do this thing, you get this result, you do another thing, and so on and so on. You get a new job, in 6 months you ask for a raise, in 2 years you look for a role to further advance your career, and so on. Another example: you graduate high school, go to college, marry someone, have babies. I could list endless examples because essentially, we trick ourselves into thinking that time moves forward in a linear way and that we can control the outcome of our lives by following a prescribed path.
Here’s what I’ve learned: that path is not a linear one. It’s circular.
For me, it’s been freeing to shift the mindset of my mental health journey to a circular versus a linear path. It lifts the pressure of needing to “be better” or “healed” on a specific timeline, and it gives me space for grace.
Let me tell you where it all started:
When I was 11, I experienced a traumatic event that left me with crippling PTSD symptoms. I watched a video in a 6th-grade social studies class and there was some graphic violence. I didn’t play video games, didn’t watch much TV, and overall lived a very sheltered life- I wasn’t used to seeing graphic images like the ones shown in that video. I had a panic attack and left for the bathroom, only to find that I had no idea how to handle the response happening in my body. I didn’t even know what a panic attack was! My body, my nervous system was reacting and I had no idea why or how to stop it. It was terrifying.
After that event, I experienced insomnia and constant anxiety, continuing panic attacks, and what we would now diagnose as PTSD. I had bouts of extreme anger, feelings that I could not control, and at 11, I didn’t have the resources I needed to regulate my nervous system. I learned some tools through my school’s social worker and a few therapy sessions, but they felt like bandaids. I thought no one could understand what I was going through and felt deep shame about how out of control I felt in my body. Things got better throughout high school, but I developed perfectionist tendencies, an eating disorder, and my anxiety never really went away- my survival mechanisms from that 6th-grade event are things I deal with in therapy to this day. (Among other things, but that’s for another blog.)
I graduated high school, and things continued to get better. I was not having panic attacks as much, I knew my triggers, and I felt like I got by pretty well. When I got to college, however, I started self-medicating the anxiety, eating disorder, and insomnia when it arose with marijuana and alcohol. Through it all, I did feel like I had more of a handle on my mental health and could imagine that straight path before me, towards a day when I didn’t feel betrayed by my body and trapped by circulating thoughts in my mind.
I got by. I survived. I moved to Scotland for grad school, practiced yoga every day, and my mental health totally shifted for about a year. I started getting more curious about myself and who I was at my center. Leaving Scotland was hard- I was really happy there and felt at home. But she was calling.....
New York City.
During 4 years of living in NYC, I have become well versed in the anxiety of the city: It’s constantly alive, constantly watching, and constantly alert. New York may seem like a city where people are living in the moment, and some of them very well might be! In my experience though, folks also tend to be living with HIGH levels of stress, constantly. They are focusing mostly or exclusively on the past or the future, and really have to work to stay present. I found this to be true myself and within a few months of moving, got myself a great therapist because my eating disorder and anxiety voices were kickin’ back up again. We’ve been working together for the past 4 years and it’s been a large part of my healing.
A BRIEF PAUSE TO TALK ABOUT THERAPY
I have had an interesting relationship with therapy, since those first sessions at 11 years old. It really helped me at that time, and I had a positive view of therapy throughout my life. The stigma of going to therapy was something I navigated because I knew it was helpful to me, but I also didn’t actively seek regular sessions out until I moved to New York. There was a period in college where I saw someone, but she wasn’t a good fit and the sessions didn’t help me very much. The universe guided me to my current therapist in March 2017 and it’s been a beautiful relationship ever since.
I think therapy is amazing, incredibly helpful, and transformative if we allow ourselves to open up to the process. I also recognize my privilege in being able to afford therapy, having hundreds of great options in this city, and being able to take the time each week to speak with someone. So many folks do not have the time, money, or resources (like child care, private spaces, etc) to make that same choice.
Now, this is not a blog where I tell you to go to therapy. I know that while therapy can be monumentally helpful (as it was for me), it’s not the solution for everyone. We all have to find what works best for our own brains.
BACK TO NEW YORK
Therapy was going great. I was building my community. I was acting, and getting paid for it! I was teaching yoga, and loving it.
Enter: March 2020. The city shut down due to a global pandemic. The performing arts industry shut down. Broadway closed. The physical studios I was teaching yoga at closed, some permanently. I lost most of my income within days, adjusted to the shock of a global health crisis, and wasn’t able to see my family for what turned into 15 long months.
Naturally, my mental health took a swift trip to the garbage dump.
My anxiety was through the roof. Some of it old stuff kicking up, and some of it new! Fear of going outside! Fear of touching people and contracting a deadly disease! Fear of touching anything! Fear of passing COVID to someone I loved! FEAR FEAR FEAR ALARM ANXIETY IS HEEEERE is pretty much what it felt like for those first few weeks of global chaos.
In addition to the anxiety, my ED tapped into the game. I grappled with body image issues, an unhealthy relationship with exercise as I dealt with unemployment, and days where I was so sad I just wouldn't [couldn’t], eat…..thanks to my DEPRESSION that also decided to attend the party uninvited.
For most of my life, I have dealt with anxiety, but depression was a new addition. I first experienced seasonal depression while living abroad in Scotland in 2016, and since moving to NYC it’s been a yearly occurrence. For me, seasonal depression felt different than this other, new wave of depression I was experiencing. It was scary and I sought out a lot of help.
Putting the cherry on top of my mental health sundae is a new addition- well, not really new, but I finally have a name for it.
Mental Health America defines dermatillomania as, “Excoriation disorder (also referred to as chronic skin-picking or dermatillomania) is a mental illness related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is characterized by repeated picking at one’s own skin which results in skin lesions and causes significant disruption in one’s life.”
It has brought me an immense amount of shame that for 15 years of my life I have dealt with some form of dermatillomania, despite not having a word for my disorder until 2020.
It started when I was 12, after seeing that traumatizing video. I started biting my nails and picking at my cuticles. Whenever I got small cuts or developed scabs, I would pick at them. When I started breaking out, I would pick at my pimples and always, always pop them.
I couldn’t stop.
And I didn’t know why. I felt like I had to pick, like I had to “fix” the blemished skin by smoothing it, by picking off the perceived blemish. I know now it is compulsive, but for over a decade I had no idea. People would see my scars or see me pick and say, “Hey you know, you should really stop doing that” or “that’s not good for your skin, try XYZ.”
Telling someone with a compulsion, or any mental illness, to “just stop” is probably one of the most insensitive things one could say. It can still bring stuff up for me, but I try to find empathy for these people, who for whatever reason feel it is their duty to intervene or comment on my life and my behavior. I can understand that if they have never experienced this before, of course, they would think I could just stop. But I couldn’t. I used to feel wave after wave of shame wash over me in those moments because I knew that I couldn’t stop, knew that it wasn’t as easy as they made it seem, and yet I felt like it should be. I felt different, and like I didn’t belong.
For years, I wore bandages on my hands and feet. Super cute, right? I would hide my scars or picking spots from intimate partners, and until my past two relationships, never told anyone about this part of myself.
And now I am telling all of you.
In part because I have processed all of these things and live a very resourced life with a fantastic support system. And in part, because I know how hard a mental health journey can be and I want you to know: you are not alone.
I still feel shame sometimes when I pick at my skin. I still sit with and process the fact that I have lived with an undiagnosed disorder for most of my life. I am still figuring out how to slow the picking and heal my skin and nails. How to not wear bandaids and show my scars.
2020 was rough on my mental health, and I had to dig really deep and ask for a lot of support. And I made it through. I feel like I freakin’ went through the fire and came out transformed.
So that's my story. I would not be the person I am today without it and without my unique experience with mental health. And this is the circular nature of it- I never imagined that I would name my picking disorder and even start to heal from it. I also know that when my anxiety gets bad, so does my picking, and then the cycle of healing and digging deep begins again. I move through peaks and valleys with my mental health. Sometimes it can feel like I’m continually taking steps backward, but I try to remember: a circle has no beginning or end. It simply continues, folding evermore into itself. I am grateful for my experiences and how they have shaped the woman I am today.
If you live with mental illness, you are not alone. You are not broken, you are not damaged, there is nothing to “fix.” There could be healing to be found, of course, but know whatever mental health stuff you deal with, it does not impact your worthiness.
A few facts:
🧠 1 in 5 adults lives with a mental health problem.
🧠 The average delay between the onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.
🧠 Mental health diagnoses for women or non-binary people can be harder to identify because they can present with different symptoms than men.
🧠 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14.
You can read more about these and other mental health statistics in the US at https://www.nami.org/mhstats.
I have included mental health resources below and encourage you to continue building your arsenal of resources and tools as you continue your own circular journey. I have also included a few places to donate to those with the financial ability to give.
Living with a mental health disorder is not always easy. For every single one of you surviving the hard days, I see you. You are doing great.
Keep stepping into the circular nature of your life.
Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–8 p.m., ET.
1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or firstname.lastname@example.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Hours: Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish.
The Trevor Project
Trevor Lifeline: crisis intervention and suicide prevention phone service available 24/7/365.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline
A free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Crisis Text Line
Text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
National Sexual Assult Hotline
Loveland Therapy Fund
Heal Haus Therapy Fund
You can read more about dermatillomania here: